MOVIE REVIEW- Forgettable: <i>Four Christmases</i> no holiday classic

a still from this week's film

"You can't spell ‘families' without ‘lies.'"

That's the best line in Four Christmases, a movie that looks like it was written by a focus group and sounds like it was scored by an iPod set on Random Shuffle. Running less than 90 minutes, it's calculated to put you in the Christmas spirit, then send you out with plenty of time for shopping (unless you spent all your money at the concession stand. Hint: avoid the giant sizes– you won't have time to finish them).

Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon) have been a happily unmarried couple for three years. Their holiday tradition is to avoid their families– two on each side as both have divorced parents– by taking an exotic vacation, but justifying it by explaining to their families they're doing charity work. "You can't spell ‘families' without ‘lies,'" Brad says.

When heavy fog shuts down San Francisco's airport and their trip to Fiji is delayed, news cameras happen to catch the disappointed couple; so there's no way out of Christmas with the families, all of whom conveniently live in the Bay Area.

1. Brad's dad (Robert Duvall) and rowdy brothers, Denver (Jon Favreau) and Dallas (Tim McGraw), are having a white (trash) Christmas. They're glad to see Brad, "the sensitive one" they use for a punching bag.

2. Kate's mom (Mary Steenburgen) and sister (Kristin Chenoweth) remind her of childhood humiliations and show Brad her fat pictures. Mom, who congratulates Brad on being "the longest relationship Kate's ever had, with a man," is currently seeing Pastor Phil (Dwight Yoakam) of their local megachurch. Vaughn has his best moments when Brad and Kate are drafted to appear in the church Christmas pageant.

3. Brad's mom (Sissy Spacek) is living with Brad's best friend from high school (Patrick Van Horn)– awkward! Denver and his wife join them for a game that grows the wedge that's been developing between Brad and Kate all day.

4. Kate's dad (Jon Voight) has the whole family together, including his ex-wife and her new beau. He's glad to see Kate but– where's Brad? They had a conversation in the car that showed they had different ideas of where their relationship might be headed, so they decided to call it off.

If you think a Christmas movie is going to end like that you must never have seen one. Four Christmases isn't a good one to start with. It assembles a talented cast that includes several award winners and squanders their talents on reactions to puking babies and such.

As usual Vaughn looks like he's not working and Witherspoon like she's working too hard. They were obviously cast for the demographic each would attract, not their nonexistent chemistry. The others earn their paychecks– and our sympathy that their careers have come to this.

Director Seth Gordon made a wonderful documentary, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, but in that he had the advantage of a better script (i.e., none) to work with. Four Christmases had four credited writers, and their four heads were not better than one.

The movie begins with a too-familiar scene of the central couple spicing up their sex lives by pretending to be strangers who meet in a bar, and ends with them, unconvincingly converted after a day with their own screwed-up families, destroying the sanctity of non-marriage.

After seeing Four Christmases, I can't spell "families" without "am il."