Four Christmases sort of follows along the same lines as any holiday movie these days -- dysfunctional families being dysfunctional until they realize how warm and fuzzy it is being dysfunctional. Yawn. In this case unmarried yuppie couple Brad (Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon) have successfully avoided their crazy families during the holidays for a few years now concocting some cockamamie goodwill story about saving babies in a third-world country while they really go on an island adventure. But uh-oh plans go awry this Christmas and they are forced to indulge in a little family good cheer. Guess what though? Brad and Kate learn something from their ordeal. They realize a) they love each other and might want a family of their own but they need to get to know each other better and b) they still don’t want to spend the holidays with their families. Ever again. While Witherspoon is no slouch in the comedy department and definitely holds her own with her co-star -- even though he looks freakishly tall next to her tiny frame -- Vaughn is the one who keeps things afloat for the most part. Honestly he could read from the phone book in that quick-paced stream of consciousness way he’s perfected and we’d still laugh. It’s Four Christmases long list of supporting players however that is rather alarming starting with Robert Duvall as Brad’s no-nonsense dad to Sissy Spacek as Brad’s hippie mom. Sure Mary Steenburgen and Jon Voight who play Kate’s divorced parents would do a movie like this but Duvall and Spacek? They must have needed a paycheck. The one standout is Jon Favreau as Brad’s brother a buffed out Mohawk-ed extreme fighter. Old buddies Favreau and Vaughn may have needed to work out a little aggression. Newbie director Seth Gordon whose claim to fame is the little-seen but hilarious documentary King of Kong unfortunately shows his lack of experience with Four Christmases. But maybe it isn’t Gordon’s fault -- not completely. The real culprit may be the way this film follows the same tired Christmas cookie cutter plot holiday movies seem to be about these days -- in which the families are SO dysfunctional the antics SO over the top it makes you want to run out of the theater so you can get to your own defective family for a little normalcy. I’m not saying we can return to the It's a Wonderful Life-type sugary fare but it would be nice to see a holiday comedy about familial ties that isn’t always so mean spirited.
Freshly scrubbed Cannon as L.A. cop Tre Stokes solves crimes alongside straight-shooting boss Cpt. Victor Delgado (Cheech Marin). Cannon investigates a prep-school student's murder by enrolling at the school. The too-simple set-up for this dullish fish-out-of-water film leads to a frantic aimless goose chase of comedy/action in the disappointing tradition of say Bird on a Wire. Cannon ingratiates himself with the popular dudes as the wise-cracking basketball stud. He also strikes bizarre chords as a would-be teen who romances one of his teachers (Chasing Papi's Roselyn Sanchez). But the suspense really takes form when Cannon stumbles upon a car-theft ring and a drug ring um on the school newspaper's Web site. He also discovers his grown-up self in the process.
Cannon's got poppy charisma as a smooth-talker. In a smarter comedy Cannon could do damage. But the jokes in Underclassman are so utterly defanged so throwaway they're the edgy equivalent of suburban doctor's office banter. Harmless racial jokes are thrown in for easy spice while groaner after groaner is set up like Wiffleballs on a tee. X-Men 3's Shawn Ashmore who plays basketball team captain Rob Donovan slaps on the precise amount of detestable pretty-boy-ness. Marin long ago completed the transformation from '70s stoner; in 2005 he plays the gruff police chief with no patience. Supporting actors know and play their roles in this all-the-way-around big-studio movie.
The Underclassman for its critical failure bops along like a pop rock in a glass of Coke for the ADD teen generation. Dialogue is kept mercifully short so scenes are as interesting as they can be. But the comic sensibility is so off that nearly all audiences will feel alienated out of touch with the lame one-liners. All the conventions of Another Teen Movie are here: the elitist exclusion by the popular kids; the "stay in school" messages; the banging rap music; a villain named "Murdoch." The only thing missing is Samuel L. Jackson saying "I came to teach boys and you became men."