During my entire career as a film reviewer, I’ve never walked out of a movie and never will, though of course I’ve been tempted on countless occasions. Given the promise of the love story-cum-historical epic-cum-adventure yarn Australia, I rather unexpectedly felt an urge to hoof it to my car during the torturous opening scenes of this big-budget spectacle. Director Baz Luhrmann’s frenzied approach, which worked perfectly for the musical genre in Moulin Rouge! and for teen angst in Romeo & Juliet, is grotesquely out of place in these expository se quences (Luhrmann is talented, but he’s no Howard Hawks), while Nicole Kidman, as the prim and trim Englishwoman newly arrived to this savage land, manages (for the first 20 minutes, at least) to turn in the worst performance of her career. After this migraine-inducing opening, the movie settles down (well, sort of) and begins to find its stride. Unfortunately, that stride is only occasionally graceful, resulting in a mishmash of a film marked by infuriating ups and downs.As Sarah Ashley, who journeys to Australia and ends up trying to protect her late husband’s cattle ranch from being taken over by rival businessman King Carney (a welcome Bryan Brown, little seen since his brief heyday during the 1980s), Kidman never fully immerses herself in the role -- too many actorly tics spoil the broth. As Drover, the hunky cattle driver who agrees to help Sarah in her quest to save the business, Hugh Jackman fares better, choosing to play most emotions close to the vest -- make that close to the bare chest -- and thereby emerging as an oasis of calm amidst so much rampant scenery-chewing. The worst culprit of overacting is David Wenham, whose dastardly henchman Fletcher ends up being perhaps the most risible movie villain since Billy Zane’s Cal Hockley took shots at Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack Dawson as the Titanic sank into the chilly depths.In between scenes of Nicole and Hugh gettin’ sweaty and sequences involving the Japanese advancement during World War II, Australia touches upon the country’s horrific treatment of its half-caste children (produced when whites seduced -- or raped -- Aboriginal women), although with so much territory to cover -- both literally and figuratively -- the movie doesn’t provide much more than a surface look (see 2002’s Rabbit-Proof Fence for a more thorough examination). What it does provide, in those moments when Luhrmann isn’t allowing the material to spin out of control, is the sort of old-fashioned yarn Hollywood used to produce on a regular basis, with sweeping vistas providing backdrops for couples clinched in love. But for a primer on Australia, you’d do just as well renting Crocodile Dundee.
The purpose of theatrical trailers, as I (and the rest of the universe) understand it, is to showcase many of the film’s best scenes in an effort to get folks to crowd the box office during opening week and beyond. The trailer for Four Christmases fails this test, as it focuses almost exclusively on barf gags, pratfalls and other broad, physical comedy sure to draw the yahoo crowd but not necessarily anyone else. A more representative trailer, on the other hand, would have revealed a movie that’s actually worth seeing -- a smart, tart and even sexy (love that opening gag) confection whose observations about family dysfunction will make audience members squirm in their seats even as the laughs pour off the screen. Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon headline as Brad and Kate, a deeply-in-love couple who always bypass their families at Christmastime in order to take overseas vacations. But complications force the pair to visit their relatives after all, and since both sets of parents (Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek are his, Jon Voight and Mary Steenburgen are hers) are divorced, that means four familial gatherings in one day. It proves to be a grueling endurance test for both of them, as each is humiliated in turn by parents, siblings and other assorted in-laws.