It used to be that the rules of engagement - Hollywood holiday division - were clearly drawn. Thanksgiving movies dealt with clannish conflicts and Christmas flicks with family concord.
This is a roundabout way of saying that Four Christmases, a generic oven-stuffer that wants to be a stocking-stuffer, is a turkey, despite the foil wrapping and some artfully deployed tinsel.
The underlying premise is intriguing. How to go home for Christmas in the age of divorce and remarriage when visiting the folks becomes a yule-athon? How does a couple deal with his cantankerous dad, her cougar mom, his red-hot mama and her much-younger lover and her dad for whom wives are as disposable as Kleenex - not in a lifetime but all in one day?
Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon) are a San Francisco couple proportioned like Hagrid and Tinkerbell. When they dance (Vaughn stands 6-foot-5, Witherspoon, just over 5 feet) it's like a Norwegian spruce dangling a fragile ornament off its mighty branch. Initially, this is an amusing sight gag. But as the movie grinds on, the filmmakers don't run with it.
Whether it's dancing or role-playing to spice up their sex life, Brad and Kate are devoted to their pleasures at the expense of family connections. On holidays, they book exotic vacations and tell the folks that they're off doing humanitarian relief.
But one Christmas when a pea-soup fog shrouds the city and no planes can leave, a TV reporter interviews the stranded couple at the airport. Once their families see they're in town, Brad and Kate are expected to report for duty.
First-time feature director Seth Gordon has a situation, but he fails to provide the comedy. Too bad, because Vaughn and Witherspoon are game. His motormouth delivery and her kewpie-doll gimlet eyes are great comic tools, if only they had opportunities to use them.
After a promising opener, these gifted comedians are subjected to ritual humiliation. Vaughn's Brad, the brainy one, is attacked by jock brothers (one of them is Jon Favreau). Witherspoon's Kate, a fastidious young woman uninterested in babies, serves as a burp cloth for her infant niece.
(In a nice bit of casting, Witherspoon's sister is played by Kristin Chenoweth, another bitty blond spitfire hosed down by Gordon's uninspired direction.)
Four Christmases is a wan attempt to comically use the holidays as Wedding Crashers used marriage. That is, it aims to show that those who avoid (or mock) a custom are fearful of the emotions and responsibilities said custom incites.
Is it that Brad and Kate can't commit because their parents could not? Or is it because they're selfish yuppie slime? Gordon tries to have it both ways.
Finally, the most interesting question about this cheerless and incoherent affair is how did Brad's redneck dad (Robert Duvall) ever hook up with his hippie mom (Sissy Spacek)? Now, there's a story.
Four Christmases *1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Seth Gordon. With Reese Witherspoon, Vince Vaughn, Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek. A New Line Release distributed by Warner Bros.
Running time: 1 hour, 22 mins.
Parent's guide: PG13 (sexual humor, profanity, slapstick violence)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or email@example.com. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/.