Same story, new jokes

(MCT) – Like a gift card in your stocking, the romantic comedy “Four Christmases” is pretty generic, though you might still be grateful for it. The jokes are old, but they hit as often as they miss. And while the free-spirited lovers at the film’s center succumb predictably to tradition, they also serve as an accurate send-up of today’s overly modern relationships.

Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon convincingly play Brad and Kate, leisure-obsessed 30-somethings who are anti-marriage, anti-children and pro-themselves. For these two San Franciscans, even Christmas comes free of responsibility. Every year they jet off to some paradise, this time it’s Fiji, to avoid the psychodramas of family gatherings.

When fog grounds their flight, Brad and Kate must visit their four divorced parents, all familiar characters. Brad’s beer-guzzling father (Robert Duvall) simmers with working-class rage; Brad’s mother (Sissy Spacek) has taken up with a younger man and waxes rhapsodic about their sex life. Kate’s spacey mother (Mary Steenburgen) dates a megachurch pastor (Dwight Yoakam); Kate’s kindly father (Jon Voight) provides the film’s one anchor of normalcy.

For his first feature, director Seth Gordon (the quirky documentary “The King of Kong”) paints by the numbers. The comedic dialogue devolves into mere shouting; the domestic slapstick is standard fare. Along the way, Kate and Brad will hold a couple of babies, setting off her biological clock and triggering his flight reflex.

That’s an unconvincing conceit, but the rift that results between Brad and Kate has the ring of truth. They deal with each other honestly and respectfully, with no contrived freak-outs or forced emotions. If the screenwriters had taken such care with the rest of the script, “Four Christmases” might have made a more heartfelt gift.

– Rafer Guzmán