We Like our Christmas Films Wrapped in Dysfunction

The trend over the past decade, however, has been to revel in the crude and rude, with commercialism and competition upstaging goodwill toward men.

The nasty streak took hold with the success of that ultimate in coal-worthy behavior, 2003's "Bad Santa," with Billy Bob Thornton as a sour-tempered drunk of a mall Santa. It continued with 2004's "Christmas With the Kranks" and 2006's "Deck the Halls," both studies in decorating one-upmanship, as well as 2004's "Surviving Christmas," in which Ben Affleck's loathsome millionaire rents a family for the holidays.

Save for "Bad Santa," which has comfortably settled into favored status for the naughty among us, most of these films failed to connect with audiences.

"The fundamental problem is that audiences are loath to accept sweetness and innocence," observes film critic Leonard Maltin. "But why would you want to spend time in the company of these miserable characters? Even if you were to accept Christmas is not all it is cracked up to be, why would you want to dwell on that as a basis for a movie?"

He believes the best holiday movies are those with at least a sprinkling of realism. "If you are fool enough to see The Kranks, you'll see a bunch of people play acting and not invested in the film. And if you aren't invested, whatever sentiments you are putting forth ring hollow."

"Four Christmases" tries to have its fruitcake and eat it, too. Silly gags such as Witherspoon being bullied by kids in an inflated moon bounce or Vaughn being pummeled by his snarling cage-fighter brothers are tempered by some true-to-life confrontations and emotions.

Witherspoon can relate to how Vaughn's mother (Sissy Spacek at her dottiest) can't get a grip on how to play the party game Taboo. "She so reminds me of my mother, who can't seem to follow directions of any board game," she says. "If we complain, she says, 'I'm playing. Isn't that enough?' "

A merry mélange

Mary Steenburgen has experienced firsthand the schedule-juggling that goes on in "Four Christmases." The actress who plays Witherspoon's man-crazy mom has a grown son and a daughter with first husband Malcolm McDowell and two stepdaughters with second husband Ted Danson.

"My oldest stepdaughter has a mother and father who are divorced, and her boyfriend does, too. They have four Christmases. There are an awful lot of people in this situation."

In fact, she often shares part of the holidays with her former spouse's family, just as her character does with Jon Voight. "I see my ex-husband, his wife and little boys," she says. "It's a real part of some people's lives, and this is a humorous way to deal with it."

This holiday season might be an especially rough one given the state of the economy. A little mayhem and mirth at the movies might provide a chance to escape the cold facts of life, at least for a couple of hours.

"It's not accidental that many of the holiday classics have come out of times of hardship," says Steve Mintz, a historian at Columbia University. "Stressful times magnify our fears and emotional needs."

Even the most dysfunctional movie family can offer some joy if not comfort.

"One of the few memorable byproducts of recession in the early '90s was 'Home Alone,'" Mintz says. "These films provide reassurance that our families aren't so bad. At least we wouldn't leave our child behind at Christmastime."

TELL US: What's your favorite holiday-film family, and why? Leave your comments below.

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