Sunday, November 30, 2008

"Four Christmases," aka "Give Me More Comedies About Unappologetic Jerks"

Y'know what bothers me? We don't make many comedies about "iffy" people who STAY iffy anymore. Or at least it seems like we don't. Lots of comedies about all-around good people, LOTS about bad-to-iffy people who turn good in the third act... but very few where the main characters enter AND exit the film as just-this-side-of-dickish.

The original "Fun With Dick and Jane" was about a pair of people who were attractive and witty enough that we ENJOYED them... but who were also shallow, vain, lazy and obnoxious. And it WORKED because that delicate balance allowed the film to achieve that old saw about the having and consuming of one's cake: We enjoy watching Dick and Jane as they go through their adventure, but they've "got it coming" enough that we can ALSO enjoy circumstance conspiring to smack them around a little. The recent remake didn't have quite the same balls, instead framing it's leads as fundamentally good people stuck in a bad situation: a corporate raiding has left them unemployed and desperate, and they turn to crime as a last resort; while in the original they were a pair of pampered yuppie scum who turned to crime because it was easier than having to go get normal jobs. Unsurprisingly, the new version isn't very good.

See also: Part of the genius of the first "Vacation" is that Clark W. Griswold NEVER actually learns "his lesson" or anything else: He begins and ends the film almost psychotically-obsessed with his perfect family vacation, with his ultimate triumph being the final surrender of his family, the local police and even the proprietor of Wally World itself into joining him in the surreal fantasy-land where his perspective makes perfect sense.

The fact that comedies generally don't have those kind of balls anymore for the most part means that, when one goes to see a new comedy about "bad" or at least "socially unacceptable" behavior one must assume ahead of time that the film is going to turn - usually dishonestly - against itself in the third act... And it almost NEVER fully works, because most "bad behavior" comedies are at their core about letting the audience enjoy said behavior vicariously. See: "Wedding Crashers," which would have been even MORE hysterical and edgy if it had allowed Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson to remain committed to their sketchy-yet-effective sexual hobby rather than having them "grow up." Problem is, it's harder than you'd think to really muster up the artistic guts to DO that when, at the end of the day, people LIKE their entertainment to ultimately reassure them that the basic mythology of "mainstream" cultural institutions (particularly ones they're part of) is sound and desirable.

And so we have "Four Christmases," which has a plot structure that allows four pretty-good setups for "dysfunctional family gathering" movies to be boiled down to their funniest elements and served together for maximum impact... but the same aforementioned lack of follow-through that finally renders it only 3/4ths of a good movie.

The central figures are Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon as an urbane San Fransisco couple who are philosophically opposed to marriage, have no interest in becoming parents and are - this is important - completely and utterly in love. They ADORE one-another, spend as much time together as possible, and for all the world just can't be happier. And, for a moment there, it seems like the film might be more interesting than it seemed: Here are two characters SOMEHOW managing to live a life outside the social-strictures of "how relationships are supposed to go" who AREN'T poorer or flawed for the experience. But, you know it can't last: It's a modern American comedy, so you know ahead of time that the film will eventually contrive to punish their frivolity and cheer the triumph of Glorious Conformity. But they're fun while it lasts.

Understand, for the record, that I'm not griping about the film's message in and of itself - just the execution. The IDEA that these two people's rejection of the traditional holiday mythos represents a personal and relationship flaw that MUST be corrected... fine, no problem. Sure, it's trite and predictable, but nothing ultimately WRONG with it. The film just doesn't do a good job SELLING the premise: What we see of the relationship is perfectly functional, and the supposed "rifts" essentially boil down to their failure to reveal past family-related traumas.

Both characters are the children of messy divorces between colorful parents whom they make an annual ritual out of avoiding for the Holidays. But when circumstances collide forcing them to miss a vacation flight AND appear on TV looking guilty, they resign themselves to a marathon visit of all four eccentric households on Christmas day. This includes his boorish father (Robert Duvall) and roid-raging cage-fighter brothers, her born-again mother (Mary Steenburgen) and "cougar den" of sisters and aunts, his hippie mom (Sissy Spacek) and much younger boyfriend and finally her father (Jon Voight) the final uninteresting stop because thats where the "lessons" have to be learned.

The first three sketches, at least, retain a degree of the edge hinted at by the first act as, one by one, the various sacred cows of the American Christmas get trotted out for a swift kick in the ass: The kids aren't sweet and wonderful - they're brats. The babies aren't magical - they're loud and smelly. The Church nativity play isn't heartwarming - it's plastic and repellant. The thought ISN'T all that counts. Whack! Whack! Whack! Whack! It's all very funny and spectacularly cathartic if you can just forget that you're being set up for a "lesson" - especially the parts focusing on Witherspoon, who's natural I-practically-shit-fresh-baked-apple-pie All-American persona is here used to great ironic effect. She has a scene involving the improper holding of an infant that I actually felt a little bad about laughing so hard at, and several others involving her phobia about children. You haven't had this much fun watching a blonde chick whack the stuffing out of little kids since "Narnia."

But the fun DOES have to end, and end it does at the doorstep of John Voigt - who may actually be MORE insufferably treacly and heavy-handed here than he was in "An American Carol"... and in THAT film he was playing the Ghost of George Washington haunting the wreckage of 9/11. The guy's still a great actor, but he's allowed typecasting to turn him into a one-note effigy of The Repentant Boomer. I'm not sure how much of the goodwill the man garnered from his much-lauded 70s films and the much-appreciated fathering of your wife/girlfriend's secret gay crush he has left to throw away in these treacly cameos.

It's not a bad film, it's just a miss. And I just couldn't help but wonder if it wouldn't have been better to just follow through on that initial energy, kick the crap out of Holiday Cheer and leave the uplift to the other three billion Christmas movies.


tyra menendez said...

i hate christmas.
i could go on a long tirade about the crass commercialism, the religious fallacies, the increased suicide rates due to the ever-present idea that you're worthless, unless you have a huge family get-together, and the hollow, shiny plastic, of it all. but i won't.
so, it would follow that i would hate christmas movies (and shows, and specials, and...). so, yeah, it would be nice to something kick the shit out the holiday stereotypes and utterly mock the whole idea that you have to fit this narrow, little e-harmony profile, to count. and not in the juvenile way that "black x-mas" did.
but no, it seems the best we that don't buy into the bullshit can hope for, is to ignore it, until it goes away. there's far too much of this "people have to change into the status qua" message going on, in american pop culture. i understand a character arc; that's important. but why can't the change be accepting that you don't have to fit into the mold? that you can be an individual and still have a happy life.

Bob said...

Because, at the end of the day, even if people DON'T "really" buy into various cultural mythologies; the pull to NOT have them torn down is extraordinary. It's one thing to say "bah humbug" on you're own, it's quite another to go kick the crutch out from under Tiny Tim yourself.

tyra menendez said...

not kicking the crutch out from under tiny tim - that's like going up to a guy in a wheel chair and saying "come on, iron-side, race you!"
but, setting the x-mas tree on fire, then pissing it out, yeah, that's up my alley. i'm the person who likes the grinch, until he has the revelation and returns everything.
a hollow, plastic time, where one is encouraged to treat people well, instead of the way we treat each other the rest of the year, is just two faced and shallow. i shouldn't feel obligated into a form of ritualized celebration, based on a christian bastardization of a pagan festival.