The biggest acting achievement in this film is four Oscar winners valiantly managing to hide their embarrassment in appearing in sheer holiday dreck. Its leads are not as successful. Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn cannot manage to disguise their shame and all but skulk through this latest lump of coal in the cinematic stocking.
We get a couple of “Christmas Craziness” movies every year, shrill, over-the-top extravaganzas about dysfunctional families and holiday pressure, ending with some realization of a highly secularized discovery of the true meaning of Christmas. Following in the miserable tradition of Surviving Christmas, Christmas with the Kranks, Deck the Halls, this is one more overstuffed turkey of a movie trying to draw laughs with barfing babies, bratty children, embarrassing revelations, and old people talking about sex.
Not only that, it begins with our heroes, Kate (Witherspoon) and Brad (Vaughn) in the midst of a sex game in which they pretend to meet for the first time, taunt each other with crude insults, and then have a quickie in the bathroom. Yes, these are the lovebirds with whom we’ll be racing to four different homes, each designed to illustrate Tolstoy’s view that every family is unhappy in its own way.
Kate and Brad plan to avoid Christmas entirely by telling their families they are on a humanitarian mission but going to Fiji for a fabulous sun ‘n’ fun vacation. But they are busted when the airport is fogged in and they appear on the news, so they are stuck visiting their parents on Christmas. Since both parents are divorced, that means four houses. Robert Dvuall is Brad’s father, who hosts them with Brad’s cage-fighting brothers (“Iron Man” director Jon Favreau and country star Tim McGraw) and their children. After a few rounds of insults and smackdowns, it’s off to cougar-ville with Kate’s mother, Mary Steenburgen and her female relatives, who enjoy hugging Brad so much he wishes he was back in the hammerlock. Brad and Kate get dragged into playing Joseph and Mary in the mega-church nativity with preacher Dwight Yoakam. Brad’s mom Sissy Spacek and her boy toy host them for a game of “Taboo” that reminds Brad and Kate how little they know each other and then Kate’s dad John Voight goes all Bruce-Demi-Ashton with the whole family at his house.
Director Seth Gordon is an able cinematographer and documentary-maker (“Shut Up and Sing,” “The King of Kong”) but he shows no feel whatsoever for comedy pacing or romantic banter. A battalion of writers apparently each worked on different pieces which were thrown together without any effort at consistency. Kate has a completely different relationship with her sister in one house than she did in the other and the evolving interest in building a family is forced and flimsy. All four visits and the interactions between Kate and Brad feel slack and saggy and after sitting through it, so do we.