Quick. What's the first thing you think of when Christmas appears in stores a few hours after Labor Day?
Shopping? Jesus? Family? Santa? Fiji?
Some people do think of Fiji. A tropical trip is what's on Brad's and Kate's minds each year as they craftily avoid spending Four Christmases with his father, her mother, his mother and, finally, her father. For this "happily unmarried" couple, the contest between sand and sun and family frowns is a no-brainer.
But here's the first problem of many: In order to pave the way to holiday scuba diving escapism, the couple has to keep inventing new ways of lying. As Brad says, "You can't spell families without lies." One December 25th he and Kate feigned teaching English as a second language in Costa Rica. Another year they were supposedly delousing needy children. And this Christmas, they say they're "heading to Burma to inoculate babies." Never mind that both would rather handle poisonous snakes than anyone under 1 year old.
And then it happens: San Francisco's famous fog grounds their fibs. When a local news reporter interviews the couple at the airport after all flights are cancelled, all four of their parents see them—and call within seconds.
While driving to his father's house to begin the day of dreaded familial awkwardness, Brad tells Kate, "We've just got to get through these four Christmases as quickly and as painlessly as possible."
Right. If only it were that simple. As with many Vince Vaughn movies, not only are the antics painful for characters, they're painful for us as well.
Kate realizes she wants more than the shallow, self-protecting relationship she has with Brad. She wants to be over her head in love and the responsibilities that includes, not just sticking her big toe in the waters of "love" that uses boundaries to selfishly hang onto independence. She challenges Brad for a deeper connection.
When Brad backs away from her, she goes to her father's house, where she's met warmly. Though divorced several times, Dad now sees the importance of family members forgiving one another for all the little—and big—hurts they inflict. He says nothing beats being honest with loved ones, and, "Nothing is more important than family."
Kate's dad leads his family in prayer around the dinner table, thanking the Lord for blessings, including the relatives who join him.
When Brad and Kate arrive at her mother's house, there's a giant statue of Jesus on the front lawn. Kate says it's probably because of Mom's new boyfriend, Pastor Phil. Later, Mom asks the family to share "spiritual Christmas gifts" rather than physical ones. In an unintentional sexual double entendre, she says her gift is to give more of herself to her church and to Pastor Phil.
Speaking of Pastor Phil, he's the showy head of a contemporary church that sports more neon than most nightclubs. The church plays rocking football-like anthems, and Phil acts more like an aging pop star than a preacher.
During an abysmal Christmas Story rendition at this church, Brad plays Joseph and Kate plays the Virgin Mary. Brad is completely into the role, but for all the wrong reasons: He just wants to impress the congregation, saying he'll "blow the roof off this b--ch" with his acting. And act (out) he does. He improvises lines for Joseph, spoofing the entire story and stepping on Kate's dignity in the process. Church members are actually fired up by Brad's performance, though, not horribly offended by it as a true congregation would be.
Things get started with Brad and Kate pretending they don't know each other, then rushing from their barstools and into a transgender restroom where they have sex against a stall wall. The encounter is more implied than shown; the camera ducks away after she rips open his shirt. Later, Kate's very elderly grandmother hits on Brad. And she says her "spiritual Christmas gift" to her geriatric husband is more manual stimulation and oral sex.
Brad's mother makes a crude joke involving breasts and Brad's breastfeeding. Kate's sister says she slept with the entire water polo team in high school, while her husband "explored with men." Kate is said to have had a "lesbian journey," and several quips are made about her childhood friend being gay. There are references to "dry humping," birth control, cheating on a spouse and other sexual acts. Brad cracks wise about God getting Mary pregnant. Kate talks about inadvertently exposing her breasts at a bar. Once or twice, gestures fill in the blanks left by the slang.
Brad's former best friend is now his mother's lover, and much is made of the pair's sexual activities—and Brad's revulsion. One of Brad's nephews—who's about 10 or so—has a habit of streaking around the neighborhood when he's upset. So, for laughs, we're shown the child's bare back and legs, just before he sheds his underwear (off camera). Women wear cleavage-emphasizing tops.
Brad's brothers (both are UFC wrestlers, or "dude cock fighters," as Brad puts it) take great yuletide joy in assaulting Brad by hitting, kicking and tackling him. One of them grabs Brad's head between his legs in a vice-like grip.
Brad falls off his father's roof while trying to install a satellite dish. He drags down a cable with him, which pulls all the way into the family room, knocking everything from the walls and hauling the TV into the air, breaking it and causing a small fire.
In much less comically violent scenes—though not by design—children beat up adults. Brad's nephew smacks his uncle's face and body while sitting on the man's chest. Kate's niece and her little friends attack Kate in a blow-up jumping castle, calling her old, hitting her head and refusing to give her something that belongs to her. In response to the blows and taunts, Kate starts knocking and throwing tykes out of her way.
When holding Brad's niece, Kate accidentally knocks the baby's head against a wall when she swings around suddenly.
Crude or Profane Language
Three or four s-words. Brad's nephew calls him a "b--ch." Adults throw around that particular put down, too. Profanities "h---," "d--n" and "a--hole" are exercised a dozen or more times together. Crude slang stands in for female anatomy a handful of times. God's name is abused nearly 10 times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
The movie opens in a swanky cocktail lounge and eventually lands in another club for a Christmas party. Wineglasses populate living and dining rooms in every home. Brad's dad and brothers drink beer while standing around on their roof. At one point, Dad complains that he's starting to lose his buzz. People smoke in bars. Brad's mom mentions her "special brownies."
Other Negative Elements
Four Christmases indulges in a series of TV-grade sight gags which include but are not limited to projectile vomiting, urination, a used pregnancy test and a breast pump. It celebrates—for the sake of a laugh or two—wildly disrespectful and aggressively violent children.
An alternate intro to this review could have been, "What's the first thing you think of when you hear Vince Vaughn's name? Crudity? Profanity? Ogling? Sacrilege?
All of the above would fit in the case of Four Christmases. But it's the themes that could have been a highlight but aren't that are especially frustrating because of the values they mock.
One case in point is marriage. Actually, the lack thereof. Brad and Kate have seen poor matrimonial examples—and suffered the consequences of their parents' splits—so they want nothing to do with rings and licenses. Their motto? Be together because you want to be, not because you're tied to the old ball and chain! "I'd rather be stuck on an island with some weird millionaire hunting me trying to kill me and me trying to escape than be involved with [marriage]," Brad insists. "'Cause that's just a time bomb waiting to explode."
In other words, they want to remain responsibility- and commitment-free for as long as they can. Have fun. Steer clear of knowing someone too intimately or entrusting your life to your lover, because that would lead to messiness and disappointment and divorce. And though both do eventually begin to overcome their fear of domesticity, they still shun marriage.
Another potentially positive theme gone awry is the celebration of Christmas itself. Rather than seeing it as a chance to remember Christ's birth and bless others with gifts and love, Brad and Kate are in it for themselves like a couple of big thirtysomething kids. They scoff at sacred tradition and family, and for all intents and purposes, ridicule charitable causes by lying about their involvement with them. Because, in Brad and Kate's world, Christmas is about avoidance and fun. If that means trampling on what others hold dear, so be it.
They might have discovered—this year—that cardinal rule of Christmastime: It is better to give than receive. But they don't. By way of a sneak peek into the future at the end of the film, we see the self-centered duo right back at their old tricks the following year. Life has thrown a twist at them—and it's New Year's instead of Christmas. But no real lessons have been learned. And no real changes are made. It's another repeat of the same old same old—just like Vaughn's movies.