Holidazed and confused

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Dear Ace: On a scale of “one” to “a sullen wintry gloom,” how disappointed are you about the apparent lack of Mardi Gras awareness in this town?—Carnival-Craving-in-Charlottesville

Oh merde, that was this Tuesday?
 
Hey, look: Roughly since February 2nd, when Punxsutawney Phil predicted another six weeks without joy or hope, Ace had been encased in a mountain of icy snow, trying to dig his way out. He finally emerged last Sunday, only to realize that it was Valentine’s Day, and that the crushing sensation he was feeling wasn’t snow, but loneliness.
 
So forgive Ace for not rising to the occasion, but at the moment—and he reckons Charlottesville’s feeling pretty much the same way—he figures he’s got at least three weeks’ head start on Lent, and as of print time, Ash Wednesday hasn’t even happened yet. (In case you were wondering what Ace is renouncing this year, well, currently the prime contender is religion.)
 
So what’s going on? Fellini’s #9 is having a Cajun-style Fat Tuesday with the Jazz Rascals and Jolie Fille; the Mary Williams Community Center is putting on a craft fair and parade; and there’ll be a belated masquerade party at Siips on the 20th. So far, that’s about it.
 
Ace is crossing his fingers that by the time this article hits press, the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar or Random Row Bookstore will have gotten together some kind of bohemian grove, harlequin dance-a-thon. That notwithstanding, here’s a list of other occasions worth marking:
 
• February 16 – On this date in 1937, DuPont patented Nylon. So today, give thanks that you’re wearing a poncho, as opposed to a layer of sleet.
 
• February 18 – The discovery of Pluto, a frozen, lifeless rock named for the Roman God of the Underworld, in 1930. Characteristic of the last three weeks, no?
 
• February 21 – International Mother Language Day, which UNESCO invented in 1999. Did you know that 2010 is the “International Year for the Rapprochement of Cultures?”
 
O.K., so the alternatives are looking a little bleak. Ace’s local forecast for the week? Less Mardi Gras, more “Carni-vale of tears.” 
 
Wake him up when Easter gets here. Or better yet, Walpurgisnacht.
 
You can ask Ace yourself. Intrepid investigative reporter Ace Atkins has been chasing readers’ leads for 21 years. If you have a question for Ace, e-mail it to ace@c-ville.com. 
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Holidazed and confused

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Holidazed and confused

You’re wondering: Should Four Christmases have …and a Funeral in its title? Depends how exhausting you find holidays with the family to be. More exhausting than, say, movies about holidays with the family?

Four-upping Meet the Parents, Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon play Brad and Kate, a childless, unmarried, mutually self-satisfied couple who’ve been together just long enough to figure they’ve got their whole future figured.

With both sets of their parents divorced, they’re agreed on the dubiousness of marriage. On kids: “We’ve seen it play out,” Brad says. “We don’t want to repeat the pattern.” On Christmas with the families: They avoid it entirely, sneaking away on tropical vacations together and explaining themselves with preposterous excuses about urgent third-world charity work.

But this year, when they get fogged in at the airport and a TV news crew inadvertently exposes their sham, Brad and Kate are reluctantly compelled to visit, in rapid succession, all four of their parents, played by Robert Duvall, Mary Steenburgen, Jon Voight and Sissy Spacek.

U-turn: Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn are forced to trade a tropical vacation in for a visit to all four of their parents in Four Christmases.

Hijinks ensue, challenging the couple’s intimacy and, particularly, a twice-quoted assertion that “you can’t spell families without lies.” From the satellite dish installation disaster to the bounce house game of keep-away-the-pregnancy-test to the megachurch Nativity play swaddling problem, Brad and Kate endure the requisite relentless series of obvious justifications for wanting to be alone together in Fiji instead of with their families on Christmas day. Or, for that matter, any day.

Collectively, their separate and mutual ordeals become a crucible for the relationship: How they handle seeing each other’s childhood-trauma scabs picked, or discovering themselves to be bad board game teammates, will be telling. Her reaction when his amateur cage fighter brothers (Jon Favreau and Tim McGraw) beat up on him: bemused pity. His reaction when her sister’s (Kristin Chenoweth) baby spits up on her: convulsive gagging. Are they so sure they’re right for each other? Are we? Will there be a comedically subdued period of separation and soul searching? Does a reindeer shit in the woods?

You could say the setup allows Brad and Kate some very vaguely Dickensian glimpses of their pasts, their possible futures and a present they hadn’t recognized, and is therefore archetypal. It would be generous of you to say that. And generosity is central to the spirit of Christmas, so way to go, you.

Otherwise, like a frenzied, overbooked holiday shopper, Four Christmases has a lot to accomplish. Maybe that’s why it has four screenwriters. Yes, that does work out to one per Christmas, but it’s hard to know from the final result if they were so deployed. What’s less hard to know is that director Seth Gordon (The King of Kong) doesn’t fuss much over development or coherence, preferring instead to let the actors flaunt their respective charms and simply see what sticks. Or, well, the lead actors, anyway: Everyone in that great quartet of parents—plus Dwight Yoakam as Steenburgen’s new squeeze, the preacher/MC of the aforementioned megachurch—seems underused.

O.K., fine, maybe it’s ungrateful to say so. Is it not the thought that counts? Is it not the power of Duvall that even a perfunctory, paycheck-collecting performance is one for which to be grateful?

In the annual tradition of forgettable Vince Vaughn holiday vehicles (last year brought Fred Claus), Four Christmases is underfunny and insubstantial, but sweet and innocuous: a nice little stocking stuffer of a movie.

 

 

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