Popular culture has a way of reflecting the anxieties and ambiguities of our age, sometimes without quite meaning to. Christmas 2008’s bit of holiday eye candy, Four Christmases, illustrates the anxiety around insecure relationships, across the generations. The title comes from the visits that a happily unmarried yuppie couple must make to their two sets of divorced parents. But the movie could be called The Superstitions of Divorce. It strips away the lies we tell ourselves to justify our rejection of one another.
The Girlfriend, Reese Witherspoon, and Boyfriend, Vince Vaughn, each have to visit both of their divorced parents. We first have the Redneck Christmas, with Boyfriend’s father. Then, we have the Sleazy Christmas with Girlfriend’s mother, who is preoccupied with her own new boyfriend.
But not so preoccupied that she can’t fawn all over Boyfriend.
Not only does she come on to Boyfriend, but so do all the other women in the family, including Girlfriend’s aunts, her sister and even Gram-Gram. The third stop is a Hippie Christmas with Boyfriend’s mother, who has taken up with his old school chum. Evidently, this is not her first love interest since her divorce.
All these stops along the way illustrate the impact of divorce, generation by generation. The parents believe “If only I could dump spouse No. 1 and find someone better, all my problems would be solved.” The adult children, Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn, are afraid of commitment and intimacy. Even the grandchildren show scars: In one particularly ridiculous scene, we learn that one of the grandsons has a habit of stripping off his clothes and running away naked when he’s upset.
Not a one of these first three parents has learned a thing from their divorces. Boyfriend and Girlfriend are not deceived by their parents’ efforts to absolve themselves: They still have the same problems and crazy behavior. The new love interest doesn’t solve their problems.
Over the course of their day together with their parents, Boyfriend and Girlfriend each come to see more than they had known, and perhaps wanted to know, about the other. They aren’t so much a couple as a pair of singles. Their life resembles what the Marriage Encounter folks call “The Married Singles Lifestyle.” They come to realize this as they watch Boyfriend’s brother and his wife: The rough-hewn redneck couple has a more intimate relationship than the “sophisticated” yuppie couple.
The real surprise of the movie comes during the car ride between Hippie Christmas and Girlfriend’s father’s house.
The Reese Witherspoon character makes a speech that could have come out of a natural family planning class or a theology of the body seminar. In the process of telling Boyfriend that she thinks she would like to have children someday, she tells him they have been holding out on each other.
“We have been setting so many boundaries and limits on our relationship. I want to be in a relationship that goes where it needs to go. We’ve been trying to protect ourselves. We’ve been acting on our fears.” The audience sees, along with her, that her boyfriend’s nonstop chatter does not add up to intimacy. Their money and their fancy vacations do not amount to real friendship.
Only when we get to the fourth Christmas, with Jon Voight as Girlfriend’s father, do we begin to see anything like repentance, regrets or personal growth. He speaks wistfully of the fact that he has learned something from his multiple divorces.
The other characters seem not to have noticed that they themselves are a bit flaky and just might be difficult to live with. It is at this last house that some closure and healing comes. This pair of parents has a flawed but still genuine reconciliation.
“It took me several divorces to realize how many years I have spent lying to my family. I would give anything to get those years back.” True humility: He is not blaming anyone but himself. Not surprisingly, the Jon Voight character is the most human and the most appealing of all the four parents.
Also not surprisingly, it is at her father’s house that Girlfriend finds both acceptance and redemption. Her father was never taken in by any of the illusions the couple had created around themselves. And Boyfriend comes to realize that their life together, fun though it may be, is emotionally limited. He becomes willing to commit himself just a little to Girlfriend.
Mind you, I don’t necessarily recommend that you go see this movie: It contains more unnecessary vulgarity than it needs to make its point.
Besides, the movie is unavailable now. But if you have already seen Four Christmases, or if it comes around your house on DVD next Christmas, understand that this film is a generation’s attempt to come to grips with its own contradictions.
Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D.,
is the founder and president of
the Ruth Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to
promoting lifelong married love to the young.