We Like our Christmas Films Wrapped in Dysfunction

"Four Christmases" continues tradition made by films like "Christmas Vacation."

Nov. 16, 2008 — -- There's no place like home for the holidays, Perry Como once crooned.

That might be. But in the case of Hollywood's depiction of such sentimental journeys, you might want to head for the hills instead — especially if your relatives happen to be at home when you arrive.

From Jimmy Stewart's suicidal patriarch in 1946's "It's a Wonderful Life" and Maureen O'Hara's super-rational working mom in 1947's "Miracle on 34th Street" to Chevy Chase's disaster-prone dad in 1989's "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" and Tim Allen's can't-win divorced father in 1994's "The Santa Clause," family dysfunction is the gift that keeps on giving at the movies.

That's especially true this year with three releases that attempt to put new wrapping paper on an old package:

•More, but not merrier. After his turn as St. Nick's resentful sibling in last year's "Fred Claus," Vince Vaughn is back and bickering again in the comedy "Four Christmases," opening Nov. 26. He and Reese Witherspoon must face what is many an adult child of divorce's worse nightmare: When fog prevents a romantic getaway to Fiji, the marriage-phobic couple is forced to visit all four separate parents and their extended families on Christmas Day.

"These people have the guts to do what most of us can't," says Seth Gordon, director of the video-game documentary "The King of Kong," of his feature debut. Meaning, they brush off their holiday obligations each year, lie about their intentions and fly off to a tropical isle.

Such an idea isn't that crazy. About 18% of the more than 1,500 respondents in TripAdvisor's holiday travel survey last year said they planned to "escape" from their family at Christmastime. The No. 1 most-desired spot to flee to? The Caribbean.

A heartfelt holiday

In the movie, however, "the pair's vacation plan backfires, and it exposes how their overall philosophy is childish," Gordon says. "They need to make a commitment to the next step of their relationship, whether marriage or having a baby. The houses they visit represent the extremes of how little they know each other and what they want."

•A twist on traditions. Following in the racial and ethnically diverse footsteps of the African-American gatherings featured in last year's This Christmas and The Perfect Holiday comes Nothing Like the Holidays, due Dec. 12 and set in Chicago's Puerto Rican community.

Freddy Rodriguez is a troubled soldier just back from Iraq who endures more than the usual family upheavals during his homecoming, including a run-in with an old flame and a surprise divorce announcement.

"We wanted the film to feel familiar and comfortable," says director Alfredo De Villa (Washington Heights), whose cast also includes Elizabeth Peña and Alfred Molina as Rodriguez's at-odds parents. "I embraced the fact that it has mass appeal. What is radical is that it is essentially a brown family. They just happen to be Puerto Rican."

That means pastelles are eaten and the ritual of parranda, a kind of group caroling, is observed in between crisis moments. But De Villa, whose background is Mexican, also wanted to preserve the story's sense of personal sacrifice for the benefit of the community — not unlike "It's a Wonderful Life."

•Vive la difference. Newly arrived is "A Christmas Tale," a critically lauded art-house delicacy imported from France and directed by Arnaud Desplechin. The seasonal melodrama takes liberties with many of the usual genre clichés — grudges, illness, suicide, infidelity — as Catherine Deneuve gathers her fractious brood about her and faces possible death from cancer with Gallic nonchalance.

Much like De Villa, Desplechin says, "I love the genre. It was lovely to be working in the mainstream. But each time I work on a movie, I ask myself, 'How can I make it mine?' I bend the rules slightly." Instead of trading insults and quips when everyone first dines together, typical of most movie families, this group sits in tense silence.

Usually during the course of such get-togethers as 2005's The Family Stone, "You wait an hour and 10 minutes before you hear the ultimate confessions," he says. "With my film, you are aware of them from the beginning." That includes details about a sickly son, the second of four children, whose death from lymphoma at age 6 hangs over the proceedings like sad tinsel.

Just as in real life, the season's high expectations and heavy emotional baggage shared by guests and hosts alike can take their toll onscreen. They also lend much-needed plot tension and, often, comic relief.

"As Tolstoy said, 'Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,' " says Frank Farley, a psychology professor at Temple University. "A perfectly happy family in a Christmas movie is not going to sell anything."

The tone of such films often can reflect the current cultural mood. The woes bedeviling Stewart's George Bailey were symptomatic of post-World War II anxieties. The jubilant ending — Zuzu's petals, ringing bell, angel wings and all — that he shared with the citizens of Bedford Falls was a tonic for uncertain times.

"It's a Wonderful Life topped the American Film Institute's list of the most inspiring movies of all time," Farley says. "None of the Christmas films now come close. Instead, there is slapstick and more extreme behavior and raucous stuff. There's been a sea change since the '40s."

These days, comedy most often trumps sentiment, although a few manage to mingle the two. "A Christmas Story," a TV perennial from 1983 that has joined "It's a Wonderful Life" on the must-viewing holiday list, strikes an all-too-human balance. Despite the 1940s setting, most people can relate to young Ralphie's burning desire for the Red Ryder BB gun atop his gift list. They can also chuckle when, after countless warnings by spoilsport adults, he still almost shoots his eye out.

"There is some value in seeing ourselves in the characters and laughing at it. It is a therapeutic effect," says Gary Hoppenstand, a professor of American studies at Michigan State University. He is particularly fond of Chase's fruitless pursuit of holiday nirvana in "Christmas Vacation." "He wants a wonderful experience with his in-laws, who turn out to be creeps. He wants a close relationship with his kids, but it is stressed. He considers his decorating a grand achievement, but it's mocked as a disaster."

Such exaggerations often carry a nugget of truth. "The holidays can be a very depressing time," he says. "Comedy can help us laugh at ourselves and realize we are fallible, too."

A cranky Christmas

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.