Four Christmases: Narrative Structure
First Christmas: Brad’s father, Howard
Brad and Kate start their festivities with a bang (and a crash) at Brad’s childhood home. Here, his father Howard, played by Robert Duvall, has ruled supreme in butt-scratching bachelorhood since Brad’s mother bailed out some 20 years ago, and it shows. From the Ultimate Fighting Championship posters and the motley collection of furred creatures that Brad’s brothers have personally shot and stuffed, to Howard’s old rabbit-eared TV and his fridge full of beer, “this is clearly a case of testosterone run amok,” says Glickman. “With no female interference there’s no modulating his behavior and Howard is a wild man. It’s like a house of wolves.”
Howard’s not a bad guy, Duvall offers, “just the kind of a guy who prefers life to the beat of his own drum. It’s a crazy dysfunctional existence and we certainly heightened that aspect of it but, the truth is, no matter what you can concoct in your imagination, you know that circumstance exists in some form somewhere. I’m not pointing any fingers,” he laughs, “but you can bet there are families like this.”
Chips off the old block, Brad’s UFC-wannabe siblings, Denver and Dallas, greet him with a flying tackle that slams him flat on his back, taking him instantly back to the days of his not-so-carefree youth.
Jon Favreau, a friend and frequent collaborator with Vaughn since before their career breakthroughs on the 1996 comedy “Swingers,” took on the role of Denver during a brief break from his directorial duties on the blockbuster “Iron Man.” “I don’t think Denver is much of a deep thinker,” he admits. “He’s more a man of action as opposed to contemplation. He and his brother aspire to be famous cage fighters, and even though they haven’t been very successful at it, it’s not for lack of practice. When it comes to Brad, I think they harbor some jealousy over the fact that he’s become a successful lawyer.”
“Consequently, as his older brothers, it’s their duty to put him in his place,” adds multi-platinum-selling singer/songwriter Tim McGraw, whose standout performance in the 2005 drama “Friday Night Lights” prompted the “Four Christmases” filmmakers to offer him the role of Denver’s main sparring partner, Dallas. “I didn’t need much research for the part,” McGraw jokes. “These are grown men who act like 16-year-olds, and that’s not too much of a stretch for me. But I had to seriously get into shape for all the wrestling. That Favreau is no lightweight. I had to work hard to kick his butt.”
Vaughn credits Favreau with helping develop the brothers’ obsession. “We saw them as ultimate fighters, but not great ones you would see on Pay-Per-View, more like guys who fight in people’s backyards and then post the videos on YouTube. Favreau took that idea and ran with it, complete with the Mohawk and the tattoos.”
The inevitable outcome of their rivalry is a test of wills that takes place, disastrously, on the roof of Howard’s house, where Brad attempts to assert his mechanical skill by installing a satellite dish while his brothers give him just enough line to hang himself. Literally.
Meanwhile, Kate takes refuge in the kitchen with Denver’s pregnant wife, Susan, played by Katy Mixon (“The Informers”), who lets Kate baby-sit her firstborn, with equally traumatic results.
By the time Brad dusts himself off to go, he is so grateful to escape the house with all his ribs intact that he fails to notice a subtle change in Kate. For one quiet moment in the melee, as Brad reluctantly held his tiny niece, Kate looked across the room and saw her handsome–if flawed–man in a brand new light.
Second Christmas: Kate’s mother, Marilyn
The absence of Marilyn’s familiar Christmas decorations out front is balanced by a life-size statue of Jesus with outstretched arms, prompting Kate to wonder who her mother’s current beau is and what other influences he may be exerting on the household.
Mary Steenburgen, who stars as Marilyn, explains. “She has had a lot of boyfriends. Marilyn is always looking for true love, and even though it eludes her, she remains hopeful that the next man will be the one. With every new boyfriend, she adapts herself and her life completely to his tastes and interests, so that Kate never knows who or what she’s going to find when she comes home.”
While Marilyn fusses over Brad in habitual homage to anything tall, dark and handsome, Kate has a prickly reunion with her sister Courtney, played by Kristin Chenoweth. A former cheerleader, she is, says Gordon, “one of those girls who peaked in high school and hasn’t quite gotten over it, though she remains fiercely positive. We needed an actress in that part who could pull off being really nasty to her sister but still remain relatable and likeable in her own way, and Kristin was absolutely perfect.”
It didn’t hurt that, as Witherspoon points out, “We’re both Southern, small and blonde, so we already look like family. It was a thrill to work with Kristin and create the kind of sibling relationship where we get to tear each other’s hair out a little but still make it clear that there’s a deep and loving bond at its core.”
Says Chenoweth, “Courtney was the big success in high school, while Kate was awkward and unpopular. Courtney expected to get the prize husband and have the perfect socialite life, but things didn’t work out that way. Meanwhile, Kate grew into a real swan, with a great job and a cool boyfriend. So now it’s big sister’s chance to remind Kate–and by the way, Brad–of what she used to look like and what a loser she was.”
The holiday observance soon moves to Marilyn’s church, where her newfound religious commitment is explained by the introduction of her latest love interest: the charismatic Pastor Phil, played by country music superstar and acclaimed actor Dwight Yoakam, who truly made the role his own.
“Pastor Phil was originally meant to play guitar and deliver a brief sermon, but Dwight brought such stature and swagger to it, with his arms raised and a booming voice that played to the furthest pews,” says Gordon. The ensuing brainstorming process eventually produced a giant video screen backdrop with a close-up on his face, a light show, music and a full stage to back him up.
Yoakam reveals, “It was a kind of exploration into moments I’ve had in my own life, growing up in a fundamentalist church, and I mean that with the greatest affection. The best preachers in that tradition can sometimes be very dramatic in their presentation and speaking style to the point where it can take on some absurd elements, but you know at the heart of it is someone earnestly trying to communicate an idea. In this case, it’s universal love. That’s what Pastor Phil is all about.”
As things rapidly deteriorate from bad to worse, Brad and the extremely stage-frightened Kate are drafted as substitute leads in the church’s Christmas pageant, where, under blinding lights and attention, their every miscommunication is amplified. By the time they make their exit and head off to the next stop on the day’s agenda, they are barely speaking to each other.
Third Christmas: Brad’s mother, Paula
At first glance, Paula’s place in Marin seems inviting and comfortable: an airy, pillow-strewn New Age sanctuary and the perfect antidote to the Pastor Phil Show…so what, exactly, could be making Brad so uptight here Perhaps it’s the fact that Paula’s journey toward self-actualization has picked up an eager hitchhiker in the form of Brad’s former high school buddy Darryl, played by “Swingers” alum Patrick Van Horn. Now Paula’s soul mate/life partner, Darryl vacillates between wanting to high-five his old friend and playing “Stepfather Knows Best.”
“That was totally Vince,” Gordon credits. “He suggested, ‘what if she’s sleeping with her son’s best friend from high school’ and it became this amazing squirm-worthy scene that simultaneously explains how Brad has become so estranged from his mother.”
Paula is played by Sissy Spacek, enjoying what she calls “a rare opportunity to cut loose in a fast-paced comedy,” and likening the experience to “catching a moving train and trying to stay out from under the wheels.”
Indisputably, though, it was Spacek who set the rhythm for Brad and Kate during their crash-and-burn round of Taboo, a game in which players try to get their partners to guess a secret word from their shorthand clues. Though the scene was scripted, it was decided at the last minute to have the actors forego the pre-selected cards and choose at random from the deck, as if playing the game in earnest. “It ended up serving the story better, in bringing out aspects of their relationship in this very public setting,” says Gordon.
Entrusted with the penalty buzzer, Paula proves not too clear on the rules. Says Spacek, “Paula thought she was playing the game the way it was meant to be played but kept screwing it up. She was supposed to be buzzing Kate but was buzzing Brad instead, and at the wrong times and they kept looking at her like, ‘what!’ Considering that Paula is supposed to be a very well-educated, sophisticated therapist, I think her IQ drops lower and lower as the scene progresses. We should pity her patients.”
The speed and spontaneity of Taboo can prompt players to blurt out responses without thinking, exposing hidden feelings. More importantly, it relies a great deal on the strength of personal connections, as players reach for phrases their partners should understand. That Brad and Kate’s performance doesn’t speak well for their communication skills might indicate that they don’t know each other as well as they thought. Or maybe, as Kate is beginning to believe, that they shouldn’t even be together at all.
Fourth Christmas: Kate’s father, Creighton
By the time they reach their fourth and final destination, the Lake Tahoe retreat of Kate’s father Creighton, played by Jon Voight, they have made some tough decisions. Upon their arrival, only Kate gets out of the car.
Once inside, she has an unexpected conversation with her Dad.
Voight, who first worked with Reese Witherspoon on the 1993 Western drama “Return to Lonesome Dove,” suggests, “It’s a simple scene but it’s heartfelt in a way that, I believe, many people will find true. Creighton tries to explain some of the mistakes he made in his life and as a father, and it gives Kate a lot to think about.”
Says Gordon, “Creighton was one of the toughest characters to figure out. He isn’t introduced early in the film but, rather, becomes this vital chess piece in the story, to sort of sum up everything that has happened thus far and set up the conclusion of the film. Creighton’s interaction with Kate really crystalizes everything.”
“Jon has such gravity,” Witherspoon states. “He’s a very thoughtful and sincere actor. He brought so much to his scenes in which he tries to make amends for the way he let her down. It was a beautiful performance and we were all moved.”
“Vince suggested Jon from the get-go as someone who could handle the interaction emotionally without making it heavy, to give it meaning and drama but have some sweetness to it, that fit the tone of the film overall,” says Glickman. “We used the same rationale in casting all of the parental roles. Rather than looking for comedians, we wanted actors who knew how to make things funny, so we assembled these great actors–every one of them Academy Award¬Æ winners–who are renowned for their dramatic roles, and gave them a chance to let loose and have fun.”
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