Four Christmases smartly fills the gap between sugary yuletide movies and the outrageousness of Bad Santa. As usual in comedy, timing is everything.
Not only the whip-crack timing of Vince Vaughn and five — count 'em, five — Academy Award winners playing dysfunctional family members, but also director Seth Gordon's speedy setups for jokes that otherwise wouldn't work. Less than 90 minutes is the ideal length for a premise so slim that another movie might stretch it until viewer patience snaps.
Notice the way Gordon, who created last year's wonderful documentary The King of Kong, establishes Brad (Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon) as a perfect couple with selfish imperfections. In three breezy scenes, they're described as self-possessed, a bit kinky and scared of commitment because their own parents divorced and moved on to new relationships.
Brad and Kate's holiday tradition is skipping holidays with those new families, jetting to exotic locales under pretenses of doing charity work. "You can't spell 'families' without 'lies,' " Brad says, one of several first-rate sarcasms that few actors besides Vaughn and Bill Murray could make sing.
Weather delays their latest getaway, and a TV crew at the airport blows their cover. Suddenly, the couple are stuck visiting places they'd rather not. Each home presents catastrophes that other filmmakers have built entire movies around.
First stop: Brad's father (Robert Duvall) and ultimate fighter brothers (Jon Favreau, Tim McGraw), who take offense to Brad and Kate's violating a $10 gift cap they know nothing about since they've never been there before. Silly pratfalls? Check.
Next, Kate's mother (Mary Steenburgen) and domesticated sister (Kristen Chenoweth), plus a visit to the rock 'n' roll church of Mom's minister boyfriend (Dwight Yoakam). Maternal yearnings and nativity scene shenanigans? Check and double check.
Then there's Brad's mother (Sissy Spacek) and her beau, Brad's former classmate. Cringing sex secrets? Big check.
Finally, Kate's relatively normal father (Jon Voight), who's willing to set aside differences with everyone. Returning to normalcy after calamities? Warm and fuzzy check.
Four Christmases isn't sweet enough to become a holiday classic or salty enough to be an abomination. But it's a sharply acted, incredibly brisk diversion from shopping (or, in these tough times, not shopping).
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.