Eric German | Sunday, 21 December 2008

Relationships without marriage

The fun starts before the title goes up. In a bar, Brad (Vince Vaughan) tries to pick up Kate (Reese Witherspoon). She reacts by telling him that on paper he did everything right but she still thinks he’ll be a bore in bed.
Specifically, “I want a man whose hand doesn’t tremble when it goes up my shirt.” As she’s leaving, he insults and challenges her and before you know it, there’s a brief overhead shot of them having sex.
By the time the credits are over, Brad and Kate are a happily unmarried couple who avoid the ordeal of spending Christmas with their divorced parents, siblings and human attachments by pretending to do voluntary work.
This Christmas they claim they’ll be inoculating babies in Burma but they’re going for an exotic holiday in Fiji. A fog bank grounds all flights and when they’re caught in the act by being interviewed for the TV news, they have no choice but to go through with all four visits.
The first means putting up with the verbal abuse of Brad’s father (Robert Duvall) and the physical attacks of his redneck brothers, Denver (Jon Favreau) and Dallas (Tim McGraw), who are extreme cage wrestlers (“one person gets out, the other doesn’t).
Kate’s mother (Mary Steenburgen) is going through what she thinks is a spiritual phase because her new boyfriend is a showman pastor (Dwight Yoakam) while Kate’s hostile sister (Kristen Chenoweth) wields her pregnancy like a club.
Brad’s mother (Sissy Spacek) is shacked up with Brad’s former best friend and Jon Voigh turns up briefly as Kate’s father to deliver some Hallmark card dialogue.
I’ve learnt to approach with caution any film with Christmas in its title since often they’re drippy sentimental slush made (badly) to part audiences from their money by posing as the ‘in’ films for Christmastime.
For a lot of its trim 86 minutes, Four Christmases is the antidote to such films. As can be seen above, it begins humorously by standing the ‘meeting cute’ tradition on its head.
And it progresses amusingly, our amusement being directly proportional to the humiliations, awkwardness and disapproval that the couple endure during their four Christmases.
The film had four screenwriters but, apart from the last act, the tone and humour are consistent. Also, some of the jokes are unusual such as when Brad’s ex-best friend and his mother’s lover, assures him that, “I swear I never had sexual feelings for your mom until I was 30.”
Moreover, the comedy tends to be edgy for although characters and situations are exaggerated for comedic purposes, beneath the surface there stirs the reality of jealousies and resentments that plague a lot of families.
After being so refreshingly adventurous, it’s a shame that it ends as it does. The final act has nothing to do with plot development, credibility or even morality.
It’s a rushed way to bring the film to a disappointing and unlikely end but which, according to Hollywood, qualifies as a happy ending. It’s just as fake as it’s hypocritical and independent couples will have just cause to feel offended and discriminated against.

Everything but the girl

With a title like that and the world famous physic and escapologist Houdini as the main character you’d expect a dramatic, worthwhile film like The Illusionist or The Prestige, but no such luck.
After the death of his mother, a heartbroken Houdini (Guy Pearce) travels to Edinburgh where he offers $10,000 to anyone who can “scientifically” communicate with his mother and prove it by revealing her last words to him.
The candidate he selects is Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a fake physic who cons audiences in the theatres where she performed her act.
She lives with her young daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan) in a gypsy caravan at the edge of a cemetery. She plans to trick Houdini for the prize money but she begins to have doubts when a relationship develops between them.
The film has good production values and Mary’s act, as a physic Indian princess is depicted in a lavish way that resembles similar performances of the era.
It also shows Mary’s cleverness and trickery since her act gave the audience some exotic glamour while the physic part, which stunned her pre-selected victims, required nothing more than reading newspaper accounts of the deaths concerned.
Both Mary and Houdini are paper-thin characters and Zeta-Jones and Pearce cannot do anything more than to inhabit the shells they’ve been given as attractively as possible, They’re very good at this, especially Pearce who’s charming and in top physical condition.
The film is identical to Mary’s act: superficially intriguing but as insubstantial as a wisp of smoke. The couple’s relationship is unconvincing as is nearly everything else about them.
Watching it, I got the consistently uncomfortable feeling that a real life legend, and his strong bond with his mother, were being trivialised for nothing in particular. Towards the end there’s a twist and a dramatically-depicted episode that could have lifted the film a couple of notches but it arrives too long and its stay is too brief.
Benji’s voice over narration starts with the very first shot and is reprised frequently. Initially, this disappointed me since it meant that we’d see things from her perspective.
But as things turn out, what little merit the film has is as the chronicle of Benji’s experiences and emotions and how the episode changes her from a girl to a woman.
Saoirse Ronan, whose strengths I first discovered in Atonement, easily gives the best performance. That’s as it should be because despite Zeta-Jones and Pearce, this is really Benji’s story just as it’s Ronan’s film.

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