C-

Four Christmases

Is there a comedic actor who has more trouble feigning sincerity than Vince Vaughn? Withering sarcasm and flustered aggravation, he can do. Arrogance both real and ironic has been his stock in trade since Swingers. But ask him to express an honest emotion, and he looks like an 8-year-old boy forced to choke down his asparagus: He sighs, lowers his eyes, and tries to plow through the moment as quickly as possible. Vaughn isn't required to do sincerity until late in the frenetic holiday comedy Four Christmases, but his failures perfectly suit a film built on dumb contrivances, one that itself can't fake a single genuine moment when the chips are down. The result is two bad movies in one: a gimmicky romantic comedy, and one of those seasonal headaches that submits loud family dysfunction as a vehicle for Christmas cheer.

First seen in one of those sunken living rooms that signify empty yuppiedom, Vaughn and girlfriend Reese Witherspoon are children of divorce who proudly flaunt their lack of commitment. They take ballroom-dance classes without a wedding reception around the corner, and go out of their way to avoid family functions by faking involvement in charitable causes. But when bad weather derails their Christmas trip to Fiji, Vaughn and Witherspoon are forced to visit all four of their parents' homes and spend time with the extended families. They encounter some wacky characters, including Vaughn's roughneck father (Robert Duvall) and brothers (Jon Favreau and Tim McGraw), who bully him WWE-style, and Witherspoon's mother (Mary Steenburgen), who has not only converted to Christianity, but is dating the pastor.

Vaughn and Witherspoon's journey from one cartoonish family to the next recalls Rob Reiner's notorious bomb North, though having veterans like Duvall, Steenburgen, and Sissy Spacek (as Vaughn's cradle-robbing hippie mother) around eases the pain a bit. Director Seth Gordon was responsible for the wildly entertaining arcade-game documentary The King Of Kong, but in his feature debut, he can't make another collection of colorful personalities seem recognizable as more than types. He also can't make sense of the mismatched romantic leads, who at their happiest moments, look like they can barely tolerate each other. Of course, their forced chemistry feeds into the heartwarming message of Four Christmases: If you choose not to get married and have kids, you are a shallow, loveless freak.

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