Sunday, 6 December 2015

Movie Review: Love The Coopers/The Night Before (2015)



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Even with how Christmas is extolled as the season of cheer and goodwill, it’s also a notorious time of year for families to just explode at each other. To be fair, it does make sense for this to happen: Gather a bunch of people you only see once a year in a single house, and all those grievances they haven’t had a chance to air out before in person suddenly bubble up to the surface. Considering this, it is understandable for there to be a sizeable market for Christmas films involving dysfunctional family shenanigans. Probably the best example of this would be National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, a film that showed our capacity for both love and hate while still keeping that Yuletide charm. The closest I’ve gotten to reviewing this brand of film before would be with last year’s This Is Where I Leave You, which followed the family dynamics of the sub-genre only set them during a different religious event. Given how grouchy everyone can get when that time of year gets closer, this is just the kind of film to help bring families together… usually. Unfortunately, this is Love The Coopers.

The plot: As Sam (John Goodman) and Charlotte Cooper (Diane Keaton)’s marriage is on the brink of ending, Charlotte wants one last family Christmas where everyone can be happy together. Over the course of the film, we follow them as well as Hank (Ed Helms), Bucky (Alan Arkin), Emma (Marisa Tomei), Madison (Blake Baumgartner), Eleanor (Olivia Wilde), Charlie (Timothée Chalamet) and Aunt Fishy (June Squibb) as, over the course of one Christmas Eve, they rediscover that feeling of togetherness that Christmas brings with it every year.

As far as the word ‘dysfunction’ when it comes to making a dysfunctional family Christmas film, there’s certainly no shortage of it in this family. However, it goes beyond just them having issues into featuring some truly unlikeable characters at points. Whether it’s those that have a phenomenal lack of a spine like Hank, lack of a presence like Ruby (Amanda Seyfried), lack of tact like Emma or lack of a soul like Eleanor, it gets pretty miserable watching the film spotlight each of them in turn. That last one in particular, as she is a cross-section of several unfavourable traits as if to create some kind of Voltron of the worst people alive: She’s an atheist caricature as depicted by God’s Not Dead (seriously, it’s that bad), an aggressive liberal to the point where even I wanted her to shut up, and a sociopath that actively points out how she studies other peoples’ emotions on their faces, yet feels none of it herself. Oh, and she’s also an adulterer, which the film spends a fair amount of time justifying as her needing the right man to sort her out. It shouldn’t be possible to write someone that’s this insufferable and not have them collapse under their own mass of hatefulness, but credit to Steven Rogers for pulling it off. Then again, this guy specializes in wish fulfillment borderline-fantasy rom-coms, so maybe he has just been repressing a lot of pet hates all this time.

The script has a very “you clearly didn’t think this through” approach to touchier subjects, to the point of actually being kind of insulting. Emma’s sub-plot involves her being in the back of a police car driven by Anthony Mackie, who is a closeted gay man. The film treats this as a means to show that Emma is more in tune with people’s feelings than she realizes, and certainly not as a cheap cop-out to show that this film deals with ‘tough’ issues. The rationalization for why he is a “robot” in the film’s words is where it gets insulting and, honestly, it’s the kind of shit I keep hearing from the worst kind of feminists about guys who shut themselves off from their emotions. Thank God they didn’t give this sub-plot to Eleanor, because that combination would have destroyed several planets with the power of sheer dickery. Then there’s Ruby’s subplot, and the fact that she leaves as little a footprint as she does makes this moment feel even worse. Long story short, Bucky discovers that she is suicidal and… wow, the lack of resolution on this thing is maddening. We never get an answer on the whys or even get an impression that Bucky helped her through that; it just exists as a means to add cheap drama, and she hooks up with Hank for literally no given reason other than possibly having a man will make her happy again. As someone who has stared down that long and dark tunnel myself, I can only express sheer contempt and unadulterated rage at the writer, director and everyone else involved in this absolutely atrocious bit of nonsense. Using something like suicidal behaviour in this callous a fashion is, quite possibly, the least “goodwill toward men” thing you can put in a Christmas movie.

And yet, even that isn’t the worst part of it. That worst of it is that, when it comes time for the seriously trite and hokey ending (not to mention making no sense given who the narrator ends up being), there was no point in any of what came before it. Eleanor bringing a stranger along to pretend to be his boyfriend, Hank’s familial and financial woes, Charlotte and Sam’s failing relationship, Emma’s jealousy of her sister’s family life; all we get is the characters pairing up for the sake of convenience, with some extremely half-arsed attempts at enforcing a message of togetherness. At least, I think that’s what this film was going for; quite frankly, with how scatterbrained both the plots and characterizations are, this could have been a recruitment ad for McDonald’s for all I know. Yeah, the blatant bits of McCafe product placement were doing nothing more than making me think that this is following in the footsteps of the more commercialized Christmas films; the latest in a long string of bad decisions that went into the making of this film. It’s seriously sad when I actively want an Australian release of Saving Christmas, just because I know that it’ll be funnier than this. Be with your loved ones during the festive season, if even they are people that you have only met that day yet have still managed to establish a proper connection with; this is ‘making it easy’ personified and, considering how hectic Christmas is for most families, it rings especially hollow. The film focuses so much on romantic love that it seems to forget that there are other forms of love that exist. What that ends up telling me, along with how uncomfortably they watch each other make out, is that this might be the first Christmas movie to be centred on an inbred family; unless I’m watching a Troma movie, it should never be that easy to come to that conclusion.

The closest this film gets to having a purpose, other than make sure everyone is happy with their partners, is looking at the feeling of nostalgia that comes with Christmas. This is mainly shown through people seeing younger versions of themselves and their family as they reminisce about the times when they weren’t at each other’s throats. Except… that isn’t the case at all. For as much as I’ve called this a dysfunctional family Christmas, all the dysfunction is focused on the individual people; their interactions with each other, by contrast, is about as safe as it is possible to get without just smoothing down the actors’ noses in case of a sudden fall. Not only that, the sense of nostalgia also doesn’t ultimately lead to anything. All it does is let the characters remember the good ol’ days… and that’s it. No deeper meaning to it than that.

All in all, if you actively want to feel miserable these holidays, then this is the film for you. It combines amazingly trite sentiments with insulting lack of forethought when it comes to dealing with sensitive topics like being closeted and suicidal behaviour to be both sickeningly sweet and aggravatingly bitter at the same time. This is more an anti-Christmas film than anything else, already reserving its place in movie marathons alongside such ‘classics’ as The Christmas Shoes, Deck The Halls and Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer in a purgatory near you. It’s worse than Fifty Shades Of Grey since that film just ended up boring me when all is said and done; this flat-out hurt to sit through. However, even with how bad this turned out, it still didn’t horrify me quite as much as how Pan ended up.


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Well… that last one didn’t go well. Maybe we need to push a little further past simple dysfunction and go head-first into insanity. After all, even more so than the grouchiness, Christmas’ simplicities have given way to quite a bit of eccentricity in retaliation. Die Hard is a quintessential holiday movie, Weird Al Yankovic’s doomsday-ready carols are being sung with gusto, and there’s even a film set to come out this year based on the Germanic yuletide monster Krampus… that will hopefully hit cinema screens by the end of the year because, good God, I want to see a Christmas monster movie! I talked all about it a couple years back by highlighting a TV episode about a Bogan Genie Santa, in case there’s any more doubt on the issue. Anyway, for our second attempt at finding a decent Christmas movie, it’s time to revisit an old friend who nearly caused a world war (which, let’s face it, is still less ridiculous than being led by the Human Hairpiece) as we delve into another Christmas stoner flick. Yes, thanks to Harold & Kumar, this is a sub-genre that already exists. Get out those sweaters that only seem to worn in films nowadays, this is The Night Before.

The plot: On Christmas Eve 2001, Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) start a yearly tradition to be together for Christmas after the untimely death of Ethan’s parents. Fourteen years later, Isaac and Chris have moved on in their lives and want to tell Ethan that maybe it’s time to stop this tradition so that Ethan can move on with his. However, when Ethan stumbles upon tickets to the Nutcracker Ball, the most exclusive Christmas party in New York, the three decide to go out on one last night on the town.

The acting from our main three is great: Gordon-Levitt does wonders as the straight-faced yet emotional distraught centre of the group; Rogen has a lot of fun as he spends the majority of the film high on any number of illicit substances (and being kind enough to be fun to watch as well); and Mackie works as both balanced and insecure, not to mention getting a chance to throw some foot chase action into the mix. However, the bigger highlight of the film is the supporting cast, most of whom essentially act as the numerous Ghosts of Stoner’s Christmas History for this little fable. Jillian Bell’s Betsy may be naïve, but still has great chemistry with Rogen; Ilana Glazer as Rebecca is just insane; and Michael Shannon as Mr. Green… I don’t think there are appropriate words to describe how perfect he is in this role. I doubt anyone else could pull off yuletide whimsy about weed strains as well as he does here. We also get some returning faces from The Interview, such as Lizzy Caplan as Ethan’s ex-girlfriend, Randall Park as Ethan’s former boss as well as James Franco who ends up stealing his entire scene thanks to his weirdly effective banter with both Rogen and Mindy Kaling’s Sarah.

This has a very weed-induced feel to approaching Christmas, in that it makes even the most mundane situations and locales look like they are imbued with the spirit of Saint Nick himself. It follows the unspoken golden rule of stoner comedy: Write events that already feel surreal without needing to be stoned. Between Rebecca re-enacting traditions from Christmas film villains, Isaac’s numerous drug trips and Mr. Green’s entire existence, this never ceases to be weird. Fortunately, this all feels intentional and fits in with how the film is presented. Between the extremely bright and harsh lighting that accompanies a lot of the ‘important’ moments and Marco Beltrami and Miles Hankins’ tinkly score, there’s a lot of intentional cheesiness but also some earnest sentimentality.

While we have a fair amount of sly nudges towards the more quintessential Christmas films like Home Alone and Die Hard, the writing definitely knows how to create a proper seasonal sentiment all on its own. However, even though the story arcs for our three main characters are all well-developed, only one of them really feels fitting in with Christmas. And even then, it only gains relevancy because of an event tied in with the holiday, not so much the holiday itself. Isaac has to come to grips with becoming a father (yes, again), Chris has to handle the pressures of his sporting career and how he ultimately isn’t getting any real respect through it, and Ethan has to get over the break-up with Diana. That said, their combined story represents exactly what this time of year should represent: People from all walks of life, regardless of religion, coming together to show their sense of good cheer and appreciation for their fellow man. It’s kind of shocking, even with how sacrilarious it can get especially when it comes to Isaac’s Jewish heritage, how right this film feels when it comes to being a Christmas movie.

There’s a certain pattern that runs through the films made by Point Grey Pictures, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s production company. It is a rather strange thread that connects their films, regardless of directors, writers or composers; they all have some moment of sheer genius when it comes to how they use their soundtrack. From Bad Neighours’ perfect use of Fergie’s London Bridge to The Interview’s eternally appreciated (if unauthorized) use of Tasha Reid’s Pay Day, it’s something I’m quickly growing to congratulate whenever it crops up. Here, we actually get repeat examples of this at work. There’s the leitmotif of Run-DMC’s Christmas In Hollis which serves as a decent comparative piece of how much our mains grow over the titular night. We also have the scene from the trailer where Rogen and Gordon-Levitt play Kanye West’s Runaway on a giant piano, Tom Hanks in Big style, which also has some thematic weight to it given how fitting the lyrics are. But by far the biggest accomplishment, and probably the best that I’ve seen from a Point Grey production, is through their use of Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball. I’m probably not alone in this but I cannot stand that song. It is the kind of song where my instinctive hatred is so potent that, as soon as I hear that chorus, I immediately have to launch into a rendition of “Good God, this song, it breaks my balls; makes me want to bash my head against the wall” in an admittedly vain attempt to keep my sanity in check. However, this film probably features the only time that that song has worked on any kind of emotional level that doesn’t involve the destruction of speaker systems. Nothing short of a genuine Christmas miracle could make that happen.

All in all, for as blunted and awkward as it gets, Seth Rogen’s infectious brand of comedy ends up delivering a genuinely warm and entertaining Christmas flick. The acting is on-point, particularly when it comes to the supporting cast, the writing balances stoner cringe with yuletide cheer, the music is Point Grey-brand perfection in terms of use and the production values work as a loving send-up to the cheesier holiday fare out there without seeming too spiteful. After the let-down earlier in the year with The Interview, it’s good to see that Rogen and Goldberg can still deliver with the right material. It ranks higher than Creed, as this honestly impressed on more levels when it came to the writing. However, while this was extremely funny, the comedy in Top Five worked up to a better pay-off overall.

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