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Four Christmases defies critics at the box office

When Reese Witherspoon's new comedy Four Christmases lined up against Nicole Kidman's eagerly-awaited epic Australia at the Thanksgiving holiday weekend box office, virtually every critic in America predicted a bloodbath.

Witherspoon's flick, co-starring Vince Vaughn, had been dubbed the biggest turkey this side of your family dinner table. Kidman, by contrast, was riding high on a wave of Oscar expectation, in critically-acclaimed director Baz Luhrmann's stylish history of her mother country.

Then, America's cinema-goers had their say. And in one of those upsets that makes you simultaneously rejoice that anything is still possible in Hollywood - yet wonder if the nation has somehow taken collective leave of its senses - Four Christmases beat its highbrow rival out of sight.

The film, about a young couple from San Francisco who are forced to spend the festive season visiting each of their divorced parents, topped the weekend charts, taking $31.7 million. Australia, by contrast, came fifth after a disastrous opening that saw it generate just $14.8 million.

Not only has the result re-drawn the map for Hollywood's impending awards season - giving Kidman a mountain to climb if she is to now add to her Oscar collection - it also underlined Witherspoon's status as America's most bankable modern sweetheart.

The film managed to succeed despite some of the worst write-ups of the year. The Chicago Tribune dubbed it "acrid and wince-worthy" and "eerily unfunny." The Washington Post said it was "several maraschino cherries short of a fruitcake." The Associated Press review, syndicated to almost every regional paper in the land, bore the ominous headline: "Four Christmases is zero fun."

Yet family audiences turned up in droves, buying into the reputation for wholesome comedy that Witherspoon has cultivated since her breakthrough in Legally Blonde more than seven years ago, and underlining the dearth of other movies on the market with a seasonal twist.

"It was the perfect time. It's the only movie out there that deals with Christmas," said Dan Fellman, head of distribution for Warner Bros, who distributed the title. "In tough times, people are looking for comic relief and that's what we gave them. We just hit everybody. People wanted to laugh."

Witherspoon boasts a solid CV, and won an Oscar for her role in Walk the Line two years ago. But to ensure success for Four Christmases, she hit the publicity circuit for all its worth, appearing on the cover of last month's Vogue, before doing the rounds of magazine and newspaper interviews, together with a host of late-night chat-shows.

The 32 year-old actress also pandered to the public's interest in her somewhat troubled private life by discussing the breakdown of her marriage to actor Ryan Phillipe - father of her two children - and the state of her current romance with Jake Gyllenhall.

Kidman, by contrast, has seemed conspicuous by her absence from the news pages in recent weeks. The makers of Australia, which had an estimated budget of $130 million, are now hoping to recoup their outlay by turning the film into a slow-burning word-of-mouth hit.

Cynics, meanwhile, will conclude that the success of Four Christmases, which had a budget of $80 million, goes to show that, recession or otherwise, people will spend money on any old rubbish at this time of year - especially a turkey.