Four Christmases

Who thought it was good idea to put Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon together? He’s 15 inches taller than she is, with a receding hairline that makes his gargantuan head seem even larger, while her tiny little noggin is all but covered by her bangs, which hang down into her eyes. Vaughn is known for his loosy-goosy, improvisational comedic style, while Witherspoon is a more controlling, Type-A personality who likes lots of structure and rehearsal. And yet their interaction as Brad and Kate, the couple at the center of “Four Christmases,” is convincing, an opposites-attract dynamic that actually works. Who would have thought?

Meanwhile, the film’s premise seems like a slam-dunk: Brad and Kate both come from divorced parents, and they’re obligated to visit all four of them on one Christmas Day. Hectic holidays are a fertile source of comedy, and so are crazy parents. Who would have thought such a promising idea would turn out so lousy?

Such are the vicissitudes of the movie biz, where nobody knows nothin’ and where anything can be ruined if you try hard enough. “Four Christmases” — attributed to four writers, or an average of one writer per Christmas — seems intent on being as generic and lowbrow as possible, with broad slapstick (here’s Vaughn falling off a roof; there’s Witherspoon fighting children in an inflatable castle) emphasized over witty dialogue or interesting characters.

Brad and Kate have been together for three years and seem perfectly matched. Neither wants to get married, neither wants kids, and both favor lying to their families and taking tropical vacations for Christmas. On this particular holiday, however, their getaway flight is grounded by weather, and once that fact becomes known they have no choice but to visit all four parents. Here they will learn secrets about one another’s childhoods and discover they’re not as suited for each other as they thought.

The presentation of the four parents feels like it came out of the “Saturday Night Live” writers room. Brad’s dad (Robert Duvall) and brothers (Jon Favreau, Tim McGraw) are white trash who live in a house with shag carpeting and wood paneling, and Brad’s pregnant sister-in-law asks if they want any “hore-doovras.” Kate’s mom (Mary Steenburgen) lives in a “cougar den,” where she and Kate’s other female relatives make advances on Brad — which means, yes, there are “horny old grandmother” jokes. (Is there a more worn-out gag in all of comedy?) Brad’s mother (Sissy Spacek) is an aging hippie who makes “special” brownies, wears a necklace made of giant beads, and is sleeping with a much younger man.

Only Kate’s dad (Jon Voight) is spared the jokey character description, and that’s because by the time we get to him, the movie has turned serious so it can focus on Brad and Kate’s relationship troubles — which, truth be told, we’re not all that interested in. You horse around for an hour, crackin’ wise and parading one-dimensional stock characters in front of us, and suddenly we’re supposed to be concerned when you put on a somber face for the last 20 minutes? Sorry, movie, it doesn’t work that way.

This is director Seth Gordon’s second feature film; the first, “The King of Kong,” was a documentary about video-game champions that was one of the more entertaining nonfiction movies of 2007. (I didn’t review it, but take my word for it.) It was also, I must point out, quite a bit funnier than “Four Christmases.” The obsessives and nerds in “King of Kong” were larger-than-life, but they were, in fact, real people. There isn’t much reality to the buffoons in “Four Christmases.”

The film isn’t totally without merit, though. The cast is obviously fantastic (Witherspoon and all four parents are Oscar winners), and it also includes, in what might be the year’s most inspired casting, human dynamo Kristin Chenoweth as Kate’s sister. The film has one truly excellent scene, involving the board game Taboo, that is both hilarious and crucial to the story — something that, ideally, ALL scenes in a comedy should be. Most of the scenes here are laden with jokes that are amusing at best, producing the occasional odd chuckle or brief burst of laughter. If soupy, bogged-down, unremarkable comedy is on your Christmas list, then ’twill be a festive holiday for you indeed!

C (1 hr., 22 min.; PG-13, some profanity, a fair amount of sexual vulgarity.)