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Catching Up at the Multiplex

 By John Brodeur, Laura Leon, Ann Morrow and Shawn Stone

One of the peculiarities of the calendar means that the biggest movie-opening period of the year, the holidays, coincides with the two weeks of the year Metroland doesn’t run any film reviews. Thus this week’s avalanche, in which we offer up our takes on I’ve Loved You So Long, The Tale of Despereaux, Doubt, Seven Pounds, Marley & Me, The Spirit, The Reader, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Valkyrie and Four Christmases. We hope you have more fun reading this criticism than some of the writers had watching the flicks.

 

It’s OK, Sis’: (l-r) Zylberstein and Scott Thomas in I’ve Loved You So Long.

The Quality of Mercy

I’ve Loved You So Long

Directed by Philippe Claudel

Writer-director Philippe Claudel teases the audience with a long buildup to the big revelation about I’ve Loved You So Long’s protagonist, Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas). We first see her sitting in an airport, waiting. She is met by Léa (Elsa Zylberstein), her sister. It’s obvious they barely know each other. When they get to Léa’s lovely home, the tension and dislocation are uncomfortable.

Keeping the audience in the dark is not a bad directorial strategy, because it’s arguably more involving—and compelling—to puzzle out the mystery of Juliette’s history. And it’s possible to learn a lot about her, her sister, her sister’s family, and Juliette’s quirky parole officer, by not knowing what clearly awful past act everyone’s not talking about.

Unfortunately, this is hard to pull off with a commercial movie. The film’s own trailer and publicity give away the fact that Juliette’s been in jail for 15 years. For murder. So most people who plan to see this already know the “big reveal.”

No problem.

Part of this is the rich attention to detail; every scene contains a clue that leads somewhere and means something. Most of it is the extraordinary performance by Scott Thomas as a woman hardly alive. Watching her, very slowly, come out of this emotionally dormant state is the epic drama of the film, not the mystery of why she would commit a heinous act. Little by little, Juliette becomes comfortable in her own skin, then, one by one, with the people in her life.

It’s rare that you get to see the contrast between the European (here, French) and American views of crime and punishment in such stark terms, although this also plays out in Stephen Daldry’s The Reader. I almost burst out laughing at a scene where a potential employer is angry to learn that Juliette did 15 years in prison, because that means she murdered someone. (We send people away for at least that long for selling dope—forget premeditated murder.) In addition to a parole officer, Juliette has a social worker to help her get a nice job in a clean, bright modern office. Here, she’d be lucky to get a job in a fast-food joint; we just don’t believe in rehabilitation. This movie is of course not, ultimately, about rehabilitation; it’s about redemption. But still.

Claudel is a terrifically economical director, in that he shows you exactly what you need to see, and no more. Not a frame of film is wasted. A good example is the big emotional climax, when the sisters finally have it out over the details of the murder; the scene begins in the middle of the yelling and screaming. Name a Hollywood director who would dare to cut the star’s “big scene” in half (let alone be allowed to). Name a Hollywood star who would be strong enough to realize this was the right way to do it.

Kristin Scott Thomas deserves an Oscar nomination just for that.

—Shawn Stone

 

Mighty mouse: The Tale of Despereaux.

Mouseheart

The Tale of Despereaux

Directed by Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen

Set in a make-believe Middle Ages village, The Tale of Despereaux has a painterly look that is a wonder to behold. Created from hand-painted cells, this 2D (with CGI) animated film envelops the viewer in a storybook world that seems more like a moving picture by Vermeer (one of the animators’ influences) than anything produced by technology. The characters’ fur, clothes, habitats, and pottery are astonishingly tactile, and the little kingdoms within are convincingly detailed, right down to the matchsticks that illuminate Mouseworld like streetlamps. For within the village castle there is a mouse kingdom, and a rat kingdom, and a royal family with a princess, and a chef who specializes in soup, and a rat, Roscuro, who lands in the soup. And thus a tragedy occurs. And a baby mouse is born but he’s too puny to be expected to live, and all the characters are bound into a perilous adventure that takes them to scariest depths of the dungeon.

Adapted from the children’s novels by Kate DiCamillo, Despereaux’s tale doesn’t quite live up to the film’s subtle artistry. It’s too dank and medieval, especially the subplot concerning an abused peasant girl, Miggery (voice by Tracey Ullman), who dreams of becoming a princess, and the feudal system of the mice, which tries and convicts the reckless Despereaux (voice by Matthew Broderick). Despereaux has unusually large eyes and ears, and his refusal to learn how to cower and scamper—he prefers to daringly trip mousetraps for cheese—make him a danger to mouse society. On a foray into the castle, Despereaux reads, and vividly imagines, a book about chivalry and is inspired to become a knight. He has a sewing needle for a sword and a thimble for a helmet, and when he meets the beautiful Princess Pea (perfectly voiced by Emma Watson), he falls in love. Pea is in mourning, as is all the land—even the sky has gone dark—and she asks Despereaux to tell her a quest story. But first, of course, he must go on a quest. Little does he know that one is awaiting him in the dread kingdom of rats, who eat mice—except for when the evil rat king is staging gladiator-type entertainments with a ferocious tabby cat. Despereaux finds an unlikely rat ally in the vagabond Roscura (voice by Dustin Hoffman), who secretly longs to be a gentleman.

Despereaux is the first feature from Framestore Studios, the London studio that produced such enchanting creatures as the flying hippogriff for Harry Potter and the magnificent polar bears in The Golden Compass. Despereaux is adorable, and his antics are charming. But the script and much of the rodent behavior is too formal for young-adult audiences, as is its emphasis on soup, tribunals, and the virtues of forgiveness. Considering the sophistication of its artistry, Framestore could’ve skipped the kiddy stuff and gone all-out by adapting The Faerie Queene.

—Ann Morrow

 

Why don’t you believe me? (l-r) Hoffman and Smart in Doubt.

Not of This World

Doubt

Directed by John Patrick Shanley

I’m always nervous when an award-winning play comes to the big screen, in part because of what we expect Hollywood to do to try to jazz up what may be more cerebral fare, but also because so much of what works on the boards comes across on film as too talky, too interior. This is especially true when the people steering the project are those involved in the original, and therefore perhaps less pliable to any necessary edits. The fact that John Patrick Shanley, who wrote the award-winning play Doubt, is the film’s writer-director, concerned me. Set in a 1964 Catholic school in Brooklyn, Doubt concerns allegations of impropriety between Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and the school’s lone black student, and the campaign of the dragon-like nun Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) to oust the padre. On a larger level, it concerns changing times, intolerance, the nature of love, and—no joke—the church’s glass ceiling.

Heady themes, undoubtedly, and the actors work mightily to hit them out of the park, so to speak. Hoffman, so often the creepy bad guy or charming weirdo, is genial, sort of like a more portly Bing Crosby. His Father Flynn supports efforts to make the church friendlier and more relevant to a vast Irish and Italian American working-class populace still reeling from the assassination of JFK. In this, he is thwarted at every turn by Sister Aloysius, one of those old-school nuns still haunting the nightmares of generations of Catholic school graduates. When impressionable Sister James (Amy Adams) confides to her that she thinks perhaps something has happened between Flynn and the student, the die is cast, and the older nun sets about destroying her nemesis, no matter that the student’s mother (Viola Davis) doesn’t care about any innuendo as long as her son is receiving love, acceptance and a good education.

Throughout Doubt, references are made to the winds sweeping dead leaves and felling tree limbs in a way that all of the characters agree is rather, well, ominous. Can it get any more obvious? The cloistered dinners among the nuns, and rowdy ones between priests and monsignors, give textured ambiance—along with more than a little humor. The heavy black wimples, shawls and boots, not to mention the chainlike rosary beads festooning waistlines of the nuns, lend a suitably forbidding, anachronistic aura. The conflict between Flynn and Aloysius is titanic, but it doesn’t bear fruit in a moment in which all is made clear. That’s because Doubt is much more interested in weighing the relative merits of absolute conviction with occasional doubt.

The movie petrifies under the weight of its own seriousness. The dialogue is the stuff of the stage, no matter if it was 40 years ago. Streep alone seems able to breathe some real smelly life into the movie, making her sister a bit of a crackpot visionary, and tempering what could come across as sheer madness with a steely resolve borne of having seen it all. She chews her lips and the insides of her cheeks, making interesting calf-like noises, and she screws up her face into the pinched look of a long-suffering dowager. It’s the kind of performance that mesmerizes, even as you realize that it’s taking you further away from the heart of the plot. Then again, in this instance, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.

—Laura Leon

Here is my heart: (l-r) Dawson and Smith in Seven Pounds.

WWJD?

Seven Pounds

Directed by Gabriele Muccino

Will Smith is on a one-man quest to save the human race (or at least work on their thetan levels). Just look at his last two films: At the end of I Am Legend, he died so that others could live; in Hancock, he was an immortal superhero. The situation has moved way beyond God complex—dude thinks he’s touched. It’s only a matter of time before he signs on to play Jesus Christ.

Which brings us to Seven Pounds, in which Smith—er, Ben Thomas—makes the ultimate sacrifice for the good of mankind . . . or something like that. The film opens with Ben announcing his suicide to a 911 operator. In flashback we see him antagonizing a blind telemarketer, Ezra Turner (Woody Harrelson). He angrily shouts a series of names and throws some furniture. His brother (Michael Ealy) calls, wanting to know if Ben took “something” from his house; Ben responds by saying “I remember giving you something.” He meets up with his best friend (Barry Pepper) and they discuss some sort of mysterious plan. He feeds minnows to his pet box jellyfish. (Wait, what?) Oh, the suspense! How will it all add up?

We discover that he’s an IRS agent out to “drastically change” circumstances for a few lucky individuals that he deems to be “good” people—but of course that’s not the whole story. Turns out Ben killed seven people, including his fiancée, in an automobile crash (because he was text-messaging while driving!), and he’s out to atone for his sins by helping out seven “deserving” people the old-fashioned way: by donating his internal organs. (Or in the case of a domestic-abuse victim, his beach house.) It doesn’t get much more Jesus-y than a man ritualistically harvesting his own flesh and shedding his worldly possessions.

The film’s ridiculous (and holy-shit pretentious!) conceit is made bearable only by its great lead performances: Smith is exceedingly easy to watch, swinging from bible-salesman charmer to brooding anger-management candidate in a flash. He’s come a long, long way since Independence Day. And Rosario Dawson, as heart- transplant candidate/love interest Emily Posa, lights up the screen even when she’s half-dead in a hospital bed.

But a few good actors do not a good movie make. Seven Pounds is so pleased with its concept and its message that it drives right by some pretty big flaws. For instance, why is Ben helping seven random people when he could be doing something positive for the families of the people he killed? How is it he gets turned away by a hospital desk clerk for showing up after visiting hours in one scene, and in the next he just waltzes into an intensive-care patient’s room unnoticed? How does he manage to walk everywhere if this is supposed to be Southern California? And why doesn’t the jellyfish get a screen credit? It has the best role in the film.

By the film’s second half, the flashbacks become less mysterious and less necessary, while the message of self-sacrificial redemption grows louder and more obnoxious. Once you’ve figured out the plot—which takes about 20 minutes, if even that—it’s hard not to wish that the car crash had been just a little more effective.

—John Brodeur

 

Isn’t he cute? Aniston and pup in Marley & Me.

The Dog Died. What’s for Dinner?

Marley & Me

Directed by David Frankel

A word of warning: Don’t take children to see Marley & Me if they are expecting to be entertained by scenes of an irrepressible pooch going through Disney-type antics. This is the mistake I made in taking my 6-year-old to see David Frankel’s adaptation of the John Grogan best seller of the same name. In that book, the author recounted life with “the world’s worst dog,” who along the way taught him and his family valuable lessons about dealing with frustration and enjoying life to the hilt. The movie, on the other hand, comes off like a Lifetime special about the burdens of combining successful career and domestic bliss, with the dog sort of an appendage—like a second car or the third plasma TV in the rec room.

Owen Wilson plays Grogan, and as usual, he’s extremely affable. We want to like him, but it’s hard to buy him as an up-and-at-’em journalist who cringes at the prospect of doing a weekly column about whatever rocks his boat. As Jenny, his wife and (at least at the beginning of the movie) a talented journalist, Jennifer Aniston is lithe and shiny, the real boss of the house but one who doesn’t lose her temper, even when Marley once again eats the sofa or the answering machine. Except for some light drama, John and Jenny are just what you always thought married life would be. That is, not factoring in reality and a total lack of personality on both their parts. Marley & Me regales us with scenes in which the Grogans settle in Florida, set up a cute house, purchase the puppy (the discount price not serving as a major red flag to these astute reporters), and have fertility problems—before being blessed with three equally benign, milquetoasty tykes. Every once in a while, the dog farts at dinner or eats somebody’s homework, but for the most part, it’s all about the humans.

By the time the family has moved to a cushy farmhouse outside Philadelphia, Marley is showing signs of age, and the inevitable descent into infirmity and death begins. John tries to convince the skeptical vet that Marley can defy the odds, because he’s special. The kids wonder if Marley will meet them at the school bus, and Jen blissfully serves beautiful meals and always finds time to play football with the brood. Interestingly, nobody ever steps in Marley’s prodigious poops—an oft-mined sight gag—and even if they did, John and Jen would probably just laugh. There was a lot of sniffling and nose blowing in the theater as John said his final goodbye to the dog, but here, too, it was so much more about the human and his profound need for canine absolution when it really should have been about the responsibilities and ties between master and pet. One gets the sense that the Grogans will feature dear departed Marley on that year’s Christmas card, before focusing their cheerful energies on finding a suitable replacement on which to base John’s columns and next book.

—Laura Leon

 

Pulp Affliction

The Spirit

Directed by Frank Miller

Directed by “genre twister” Frank Miller (author of Sin City and 300), and adapted by Miller from Will Eisner’s 1940s comic series, The Spirit starts out promisingly, kind of like the eye-candy equivalent of fluorescent-colored gummy worms.

The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) is a resurrected cop who mysteriously escapes the clutches of Death, the ultimate femme fatale (Jaime King). As the indestructible vigilante leaps from alleyways to rooftops, he narrates his (nearly carnal) love for Central City, exaggerating the hard-boiled clichés of second-rate detective novels. The CGI shuffling of bold graphics, silent-movie-style black-and-white, and film-noir portraiture produces a visual rush that lasts about as long as it takes for the action to move from a warehouse district to underwater, where another vamp, Sand Saref (Eva Mendes), is struggling to wrest control of a sunken trunk containing more than the baubles she’s after. But in less than 10 minutes (out of its drag-ass 108), The Spirit becomes a numbing exercise in sensationalist nonsense that rips off pulp-crime leitmotifs and whips up putrid scenarios just for the lurid look of it. The gist is this: Before he became a cop and was murdered, the Spirit had a girlfriend, who left Central City for a better life and big-time bling. She returns as an international jewel thief whose husbands have a habit of killing themselves (suicide is a frequently used schlock tactic). The Spirit and Sand Saref both run afoul of the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) and his nerdy henchperson (Scarlett Johansson). Octopus is a mad scientist who uses clones for minions, but long before the film indulges in the insanity of elaborate hari-kari and Nazi torture tableaux, its driveling dialogue and high-tech filmic dreck make it the equivalent of stale gummy maggots.

—Ann Morrow

 

Sexy time: (l-r) Winslet and Kross in The Reader.

Bedtime Stories

The Reader

Directed by Stephen Daldry

Way back when my husband and I weren’t yet married, we saw La Lectrice, a French movie linking the cerebral pleasures of a good book with those of a more carnal nature. One can imagine the inspiration such a movie set off, especially in days before kids and mortgages. Anyway, for those who think that Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, which has its own fair share of reading and sex, might have the same sort of titillation factor, be advised that this is far more sleep-inducing than anything else.

The Reader moves back and forth in time between late-1950s West Germany, when teen Michael Berg (David Kross) begins a torrid affair with much older tram operator Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet); the mid-1960s, when Michael, a law student, observes the war crimes trial of former SS guards, including Hanna; and the mid-1990s, when middle-aged Michael (Ralph Fiennes) tries to come to terms with a life tied to a misery that began when Hanna left him.

This moment follows closely on the heels of the pair’s first argument. Imagine, if you will, a still-wet-behind-the-ears teen boy complaining that his 30-something lover never asks how his day went, and you get the sense of what passes for conflict in this stilted, overly pensive film.

The title refers to the fact that, prior to their assignations, Hanna insists that Michael read to her, something that clearly turns her on and probably does much to help Michael get into law school. Those scenes, in which Michael and a few other select students listen to supposedly thought-provoking lectures about German guilt and the nature of morality versus law, are pale cousins to the less-weighty discussions acted out in The Paper Chase. It isn’t clear what shocks Michael more, the realization that his former lover is both a former SS guard, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Jewish women, or that she—the long-simmering memory of sexual abandon—is illiterate. As is the case throughout the movie, Michael doesn’t act (he has it in his power to alert the court of Hanna’s illiteracy, a potentially key piece of evidence to be considered in her sentencing), but merely looks stunned and out of breath. Winslet, on the other hand, channels Lana Turner’s suffering in Madame X (a compliment), and refrains from trying to make us empathize with an unrepentant character. The script, on the other hand, attempts to equate literacy with grand motives and actions. But does anybody buy the idea that Hanna teaching herself to read “The Lady With the Little Dog” makes her more compelling or understandable?

A huge problem with The Reader is, in fact, Michael’s dull impassivity. If meant to represent a collective German culpability, it nevertheless does nothing to make us care for him, his fellow countrymen, or his dilemma. Instead, he comes across as self-serving, self-involved. The one time he takes action—he tapes himself reading all of his and Hanna’s hit parade of literary classics, sending the tapes to her in prison—he follows up with typical unwillingness to involve himself. There’s one truly great scene, toward the end, when Michael visits an author (Lena Olin), one of the very few survivors of Hanna’s guardianship. It’s clear that he is looking for some sort of answer, if not absolution, but she tells him that if he’s looking for catharsis, he should go to the theater or enter therapy. “Nothing came out of the camps,” she instructs, and one regrets that the filmmakers did not come to that realization before trying to make a movie that attempts to milk the suffering of those who were sent there.

—Laura Leon

You look marvelous: (l-r) Pitt and Blanchett in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Gump for Dummies

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Directed by David Fincher

A major hurricane is about to hit New Orleans. An elderly woman, Daisy (Cate Blanchett), hours from death in her hospital bed, asks her daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormond), to remove a diary from a bag and read it aloud. First, we’re told a story about a World War I-era clockmaker whose great work was a train-station timepiece that ran in reverse, his way of wishing he could turn back time for the war’s fallen soldiers—of which his son was one.

Fine setup, but none of this has anything to do with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a film that has little to say and no idea how to say it. These would be forgivable contrivances if Button had any emotional heft, or any real story to tell. The unfortunate truth—unfortunate, because this film has fooled a lot of people into thinking it’s good—is that David Fincher’s three-hour adaptation of a whimsical F. Scott Fitzgerald short story would have been wise to hew closer to its source material. This could have been Memento as black comedy; instead it’s a meandering bore.

If it’s meant as such, the clock could be the worst metaphor in the history of film. See, Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) was born elderly and aged backwards! But I’ll give it a pass: It’s quite possible that the hurricane is there to symbolize impermanence, and the clock story is a tribute to the victims of said hurricane.

But since the narrative structure is so awkward and fat with meaningless, heavy-handed metaphors (water, really?), that entire discussion is moot: The film simply would have been better without any of the Katrina/hospital sequences. It could have offered dozens more revelations using a linear narrative—and if a narrator truly were necessary, it should have been Ormond, whose presence from the beginning of the film is a major tell. At least if her disembodied voice were telling Button’s story there would be some amount of suspense.

Fincher, whose just-as-long Zodiac worked because it didn’t really have an ending, is at a loss here. It’s a very attractive film, but the director is stuck with an inexplicably sentimental screenplay by Forrest Gump writer Eric Roth, and a lead actor who just sits there and wears makeup for three-quarters of the picture. It’s all talk and no action. For three fucking hours.

Now, the effects are very, very good. The makeup, the CGI, the newfangled camera techniques, whatever it took to make Pitt believable as an 80-year-old infant and a 25-year-old hunk—it’s Oscar-worthy stuff.

But underneath it all Button doesn’t really do anything. He stumbles from situation to situation, offering anyone an explanation for his naiveté; surrounding characters cotton to him for no apparent reason besides the fact that he “seems different.” The cast is fine, the women in particular: Taraji P. Henson, terrific in Hustle and Flow, is a standout as Button’s adoptive mother. But Blanchett and Tilda Swinton, both elegant and excellent per usual, are forced to make a lot out of their lifeless roles.

As for the film’s supposedly profound life lessons, they’re just watered-down versions of more interesting sentiments. Roth even rips himself off: “You never know what’s coming for you” is a second-rate “Life is like a box of chocolates.” (Trust that I’ve never before wished for a movie to be more like Forrest Gump.) And Button takes nothing away from the other characters besides a few platitudes. He’s no more than driftwood in this dead sea of a picture.

—John Brodeur

Adolf, is that you? Cruise in Valkyrie.

All-American Bavarian

Valkyrie

Directed by Bryan Singer

“My Führer, may I present Tom Cruise . . .” That’s not quite how the introduction between Adolf Hitler and Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg is spoken in Valkyrie, but it may as well be. Directed by Brian Singer (The Usual Suspects), Valkyrie is the code name of the plot to assassinate Hitler and replace the Nazi hierarchy by coup d’etat. Stauffenberg, a career officer and outspoken critic of Hitler, is played by Tom Cruise. And despite an eye patch, brilliantine wavelets in his hair, and a deadly serious demeanor, Cruise is not remotely believable as Stauffenberg, and not just because one of the most recognizable faces in the English-speaking world couldn’t disappear into the role of a German combat soldier even if he were as talented as Kenneth Branagh. Which, ahem, Cruise isn’t. Then again, Branagh, who appears briefly as an instigating conspirator (and who has played Nazis before), isn’t at his best here, either.

A respectful but pedestrian re-creation of doomed heroics, Valkyrie is propelled by the sheer audacity of its true-life story. Singer’s uninspired treatment robs the infamous July 20 plot of much of its political intrigue and complexity, but by the time an explosives-loaded briefcase is placed in Hitler’s conference cabin, Stauffenberg’s determination has overridden Cruise’s monotonic performance. Suspense builds on what one character calls “the very momentum of history.”

It helps that Cruise is surrounded by a cast of versatile Brits, and Valkyrie is most involving as an ensemble piece (the script is by Christopher McQuarrie of The Usual Suspects). Scenes of Stauffenberg discussing strategy with the other conspirators—Bill Nighy as the nervous, indecisive Gen. Olbricht, Terrence Stamp as the ousted officer Ludwig Beck, and especially, Tom Wilkinson as the opportunist Gen. Fromme. The colonel’s personal life, however, is established as a series of shopworn vignettes. At home with his wife (Carice van Houten), Wagner plays on the victrola while his moppet daughter gives him a Nazi salute; later, as he says goodbye to his wife, the camera zooms in on the back of his neck, an awkward, distracting shot that is repeated as a portent of doom. Much of the action cinematography is surprisingly slack, considering Singer’s resume with the X-Men franchise and the chilling Apt Pupil, and the story’s inherent drama is most compelling during the closing credits.

—Ann Morrow

 

Ho Ho Ho Ho

Four Christmases

Directed by Seth Gordon

This holiday comedy is keyed to that modern nightmare, the multiple Christmas celebrations made necessary by the increasingly fragmented American family. Kate (Reese Witherspoon) and Brad (Vince Vaughn) are the perfect upscale modern couple, happy to avoid anything to do with family. They don’t want to marry and have kids, and they don’t want to spend the holiday with any of their in-laws. Alas, fate conspires against them: Their Christmas in Fiji is sidetracked by bad weather, and they are forced to visit each of their parents’ homes for Christmas.

Brad’s dad (Robert Duvall) is a redneck and his brothers (Jon Favreau and Tim McGraw, both hilarious) are beefy cretins; his mom (Sissy Spacek, totally underused) is a hippie. Kate’s mom (Mary Steenburgen) is a Jesus-addled cougar; her dad (Jon Voight) is a sympathetic eminence. You can guess where the film goes.

It’s likely that more than the four credited writers worked on Four Christmases, because the humor varies wildly in tone. There are enough jokes to get through the film’s 90-plus minutes, and the stars, Witherspoon and Vaughn, are game for any antics and play well together. The film’s use of San Francisco is good, too; Duvall’s redneck manor looks like one of the places Eastwood found a corpse in Dirty Harry.

It’s probably not fair to try to glean much meaning out of a Christmas comedy that is as much about pratfalls and poop as it is about the Baby Jesus and the importance of family, but since the filmmakers take a halfhearted stab at it, so will this reviewer.

On the negative (i.e., classist, snobbish, prickish) side, it’s the poor redneck dad played by Duvall who’s genuinely a Scrooge, while wealthy, waspy old Jon Voight is the voice of wisdom. And a lot of satiric targets are set up and then missed: How do you hire Dwight Yoakam to play a megachurch-style preacher, or Carol Kane to play a horny aunt, and not give them something funny to do? On the plus side, there are moments not often seen in popular movies, as when the leads explain to some soon-to-be married couples why they think marriage is a sham and a delusion. And Kristin Chenoweth, as Kate’s sister, is a delight.

More interestingly, while Brad and Kate’s “four Christmases” may have led to some self-awareness as a couple, the experience didn’t suddenly make them want their fucked-up relatives in their lives. We learn this comic nugget in the film’s very funny coda, which also sets up a possible sequel—a temptation one hopes all involved avoid.

—Shawn Stone


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