Dear Messrs. Gordon, Allen, Wilson, Lucas, Moore, Barber, Billingsley, Birnbaum, Disco (?!), Emmerich, Evans, Glickman, Kaufman, Nedivi, Riedel, Rohlich, Vaughn and Witherspoon;
Saw Four Christmases, about a couple (played by Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon) forced to spend the holidays with their four divorced parents (Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek as Vaughn's parents, Jon Voight and Mary Steenburgen as Witherspoon's) and yes, it's bad, yes it's an almost complete waste of time (more on that "almost" later), and yes I can't recommend it to anyone unless they're some kind of Yuletide masochist willing to accept this as their only alternative to an eggnog enema (given a choice, I'd need a minute to think about it).
But I don't want to dwell on that. 'Tis the season to be jolly, so they say, and I want to keep myself happy, my smile wide and cheerful; I want to offer four constructive suggestions that might help improve the film, if you feel the need for improvement (if any of you are even halfway sentient you'd want to improve this with a can of gasoline and a lit match). I just hope y'all take this in the spirit in which it was given.
First suggestion: listen to Hitchcock.
Hitchcock famously said, "actors should be treated like cattle" (actually the entire quote goes something like this: "I never said all actors are cattle; what I said was all actors should be treated like cattle." He was probably joking (for the record plenty of artists of the thespic (I just love that word; know a few critics who use it liberally, it's so pretentious) persuasion that enjoyed working with him, and he in turn coaxed quite a few great performances from 'cattle'), but like all Hitchcock jests there's a kernel of truth to be found. Actors should be treated like cattle--not in the concentration camp sense, perhaps, but certainly in the sense meant by older cultures, where you use every part of the animal you slaughtered. I mean, used.
I mean--a movie with Robert Duvall, Jon Voight, Sissy Spacek and Mary Steenburgen, and I'm barely able to stay awake? Duvall and Voight aren't known for comedy, but the filmmakers could have used that, blindsided us with carefully calibrated yet surprising roles for these two old hands to play; instead they have Duvall at one end of an elaborate gag involving an old TV set and a very long video cable yelling at the top of his lungs to little effect, and Voight at another being so serious I could have sworn the occasion was a wake, not a Christmas party.
Steenburgen--well, she didn't have a lot to do, but I found myself in a more forgiving vein with regards to her, especially as she has managed to stay devastatingly sexy even past the age of fifty. Sissy Spacek is in a better situation--she's involved in perhaps the only really funny joke in the movie, where a surprisingly younger man turns out to be her boyfriend (I loved Vaughn's reaction to watching the man kiss Spacek. "Your mother is a very sexual being," his stepfather explains). There's an almost Woody Allen-esque quality to Vaughn's mother of a problem (I wonder if one of the reasons they cast him weren't because he played the Oedipally challenged Norman Bates in Gus Van Sant's infamous Psycho remake), and for maybe ten minutes I was thoroughly entertained.
Second suggestion: Lose the concept
Cuteness is all--meaning every year, all they serve up is a cute concept. Last year it was Santa's terminally underconfident brother (again starring the hardworking Vaughn--what is it with him and Christmas comedies?); the year past it was a decorating war between neighbors; some years before that it was Ben Affleck hiring a family for Christmas. Every December they come up with the same unfunny idea, that a seemingly funny idea (instead of decent writing, acting, directing) will carry a movie through. Enough already; you're flogging a long-dead horse, and the stink is starting to bother the neighbors. Give it a decent burial or, better yet, cremation.
Third suggestion: be funny.
Not as easy as you'd think. As I'd already mentioned, I sat up and chuckled for all of ten minutes (Sissy Spacek playing a cradlesnatcher); most of the time I was just trying to find something--anything--to enjoy in this comic wasteland (maybe that's why many of the women in the picture wear low-cut tops; "if you show it," the filmmakers must believe, "they won't leave"). To recall another quote: "Dying is easy, comedy, hard;" the movie has four writers and thirteen producers, you'd think that some time before the wrap party they'd all have more or less agreed that they were doing a comedy. If Witherspoon had been cast opposite of Daniel Day Lewis and the whole thing reshot as straight drama it might be funnier.
Fourth suggestion: be real.
Vaughn was said to have suggested Seth Gordon as director. Gordon did an excellent job telling the story of some of the world's greatest video-game players in The King of Kong (2007); you'd think his experience in documentaries might have prepared him to tell us what Christmas really is: a monstrously overblown corporate excuse for pointless consumer spending, set in the center of a howling spiritual wasteland. The ideal Christmas film for me (and Gordon might still have been the man to direct it) would tell of decades of corporate greed suddenly collapsing in an orgy of cutbacks and deflating values. Streets would be littered with the bodies of financial analysts; the rich would sit on the window sills of their million-dollar executive suites and contemplate the pavement far below. It may sound like a grim apocalyptic scenario, but it would at least be honest. And, I'm willing to bet, as funny as hell.
Well, those are my suggestions--make of them what y'all wish. I just hope they do the reshoots in time to save what's left of the season.
Wide and cheerful
(First published in Businessworld 12.5.08)
Friday, December 05, 2008
Four Christmases (Seth Gordon, 2008)