Tuesday’s Reviews – Christmas with the Coopers (2015)

Christmas, diane keaton, films, fucking awful, fucking weird, John Goodman, June Squibb, meh, review

I think I’ve proved enough times that. in my opinion, Christmas films are serious business. I know you can only really watch them for 1 month of the year (with a few major exceptions) but when they’re good then they’re just incredible. Add a bunch of Christmas spirit to the normal Hollywood sentimentality and you have a blend of heartwarming entertainment for all the family. Of course, with every passing year, new Christmas releases have become something to be feared instead of celebrated. This year sees the arrival of Office Christmas Party which looks dreadful. Despite that I still kind of want to see it because my love of Kate McKinnon knows no bounds. But you can’t help but get the feeling that Christmas films are just becoming super fucking lazy. However, there’s something about them that means great actors are willing to sign up for them. Which is the only reason I can really give for wanting to watch Christmas with the Coopers when I came across it on Netflix.

Christmas with the Coopers tells the story of an extended family on a stressful Christmas Eve. Charlotte (Diane Keaton) and Sam (John Goodman) are trying to prepare a huge meal for their children and their families, Charlotte’s sister and father, and Sam’s aunt. Each member of the Cooper clan is suffering from some sort of crisis that they are keeping from their family. The couple themselves are planning on separating after Christmas but they have neglected to inform their family of their problems. Their son Hank (Ed Helms) is going through a divorce, is looking for a new job, and is struggling to be a good dad. Their daughter Eleanor (Olivia Wilde) is failing to make good romantic choices so persuades a random soldier she meets at the airport to be pretend to be her boyfriend, Then there’s Charlotte’s sister Emma (Marisa Tomei) who has spent her life jealous of her sister and manages to get herself arrested for shoplifting. Finally, Charlotte’s father (Alan Arkin) is weirdly attached to the waitress (Amanda Seyfried) at his favourite diner and randomly invites her to Christmas Dinner.

And, really, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s stuff about a young boy and his first crush being unable to kiss. There’s a gay cop. A dog. It’s jam packed full of everything except the one thing it really needs: Christmas spirit. This tries so hard to create an uplifting ending but it does so by creating countless problems that it needs to solve. Most of the movie involves a large family of white people complaining about things that aren’t really problems in the first place. To say that the Cooper family are self-indulgent is a fucking huge understatement. The Coopers are the least dysfunctional dysfunctional family in the history of Hollywood.

There are some fun and cute moments littered throughout, though. Moments when the characters manage to do something that doesn’t make you cringe but, more often than not, these moments are imagined or distant memories, There is very little in the way of development for the majority of the characters. Things just happen without any details about how or why. Basically the characters start of one way and then end up as the opposite. It’s stupid. There’s so little thought put into who these people really are aside from a few lines of basic psychological guff that really doesn’t give you much to go on.

Christmas with the Coopers does what many modern Christmas films do: it underestimates what it takes to make a good Christmas film. It assumes that all you need is some trouble that eventually works itself out so people can come together and be happy. It take that to extremes and ensures that all drama ends with a super weird dance number at the end. Everything is supposed to be tied up in a neat little bow but it’s absurd how well everything turns out. It’s like a fucking Shakespearean comedy. Christmas with the Coopers boasts a fantastic cast but it lacks any kind of story, the script is mostly dreadful, the jokes are few, and the charm is mostly absent. This is a film that sacrifices any potential success for a sickly sweet ending that just doesn’t work. It’s not the worst Christmas film of all time but it’s in no way memorable.

Nebraska (2013)

black and white, Bruce Dern, fucking beautiful, June Squibb, review, Will Forte

I always feel strange watching road trip movies because, unfortunately, I suffer from tiny bladder syndrome. Whenever I sit down to watch characters partaking in epic journeys I can’t help but feel a little bit jealous of the idea of not stopping for hours on end. A film depicting a car journey from my own life would have to consist of numerous stops or forced dehydration. Thankfully this doesn’t prove to be the case in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.

For his sixth film, director Alexander Payne returns to his home state (also the setting for his first three films) and deals with another of his favourite characters: an older man dealing with his imposing family and friends. You need only look at the decision to film in black and white to understand the basic themes Payne is interested in: it is a film concerning roots.

Woody Grant, in his last few moments of lucidity, begins to focus on a marketing-scam telling him he is the winner of a million dollars. By his very nature Woody is unquestionably trusting and as a result is unable to see the awful truth behind the letter. Despite the protestations of his wife (June Suibb) and eldest son (Bob Odenkirk), a belligerent Woody continually attempts to start the 750 mile journey to collect his prize on foot. That is until his long-suffering youngest son David (Will Forte) chooses to indulge his father and drive him to Lincoln, Nebraska.
It is once David and Woody hit the road and head into the open plains that the film really finds its feet. It also gets to the heart of real Nebraska: the Nebraska where Woody grew up, met his wife and eventually escaped from. Things haven’t changed a great deal since then and he returns to the same rural setting, where the monotony is broken only by farms and quaint churches. Though beautiful in its own way, we get a fairly bleak view, thanks in no small part to the barren winter setting. It’s easy to see why Woody wasn’t desperate to come back.
Due to a small mishap along the way, the two are left to take refuge in Woody’s hometown where he is forced to confront his past. The pair is soon joined by his wife Kate and second son David for an impromptu family reunion where old feuds bubble to the surface once again. The news of Woody and Kate’s return spreads through the sleepy town like wildfire and, once the reasons for the trip come out, everyone happily receives the news of the windfall. With his old friends and estranged family readily believing that Woody has come into a great fortune, it isn’t long before old grudges and favours are brought up and finally called in.
It is in the Hawthorne sequences that Bob Nelson’s screenplay really starts to pick up speed. Through his meetings with the residence of his parent’s birthplace, David beings to find out more about his mother and father and the life they have shared for so long. Doing his best Sherlock Holmes impression, David slowly begins to piece together the forgotten facts of his father’s past and finally understand some of the choices he made.
Woody is a damaged man at this point who has had a problem with alcohol since his youth; something you soon begin to suspect isn’t as much of a hindrance as his innate sense of trust and gullibility. Bruce Dern, aged 77, plays the part magnificently and has quite rightly earned himself Best Actor at Cannes and an Oscar nomination. Never overplaying the level of senility that Woody is suffering from, Dern’s blank expression and ruined face always keep you guessing of just how out of it Woody really is. It is a subtle but completely affecting performance. He ensures that the confused, stubborn alcoholic is someone that we not only care about but want to spend time with.
alongside Woody, Will Forte brings a great deal to the complex role of David and pulls off a fairly unexpected emotional performance. He expertly portrays the slow journey that a frustrated son takes as he reacquaints himself with his father and, for someone who started the film as a bit of a nobody, becomes someone to really respect.
Though he doesn’t quite reach the audience in the same way as June Squibb in the role of Woody’s exhausted wife Kate. Initially playing the henpecking housewife, Squibb is both hilarious and awful. Her first thought upon arriving in her old home is to visit the graveyard to give opinions on those long dead. However, as the story moves on it becomes clear that there is real emotion there and, during the limited moments when she defends her husband, Kate becomes one of the most sympathetic characters of the entire film. It is an unforgettable performance that has quite rightly earned Squibb a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Oscars.

Squibb really comes into her own when she returns to Hawthorne and faces up to the people who were guilty of taking advantage of her husband. Despite her disapproval for his quest, she steps up to defend him from the money-hungry vultures preying on the vulnerable man. Most notably Woody’s old business partner Ed Peagram (Stacy Keach) who happily takes his position as first in line with the begging bowl. Keach is great in the role of bully and makes a completely plausible brute. He is the silent assassin in the sleepy town: hiding his menace under a creepy smile and sparkling eyes. Ever the mark of a good villain, you desperately want to see him get his comeuppance and see Woody come out on top.

On paper Nebraska isn’t the kind of film I expected to feel so passionate about but there can be no denying that it’s a completely delightful experience. It’s outrageously funny in places, heart-warming and, most importantly, sincere: without a doubt one of the finest films of 2013. Alexander Payne is becoming something of an expert when it comes to older men who are trying to claw their way back to salvation. With the help of Nelson’s effortless script and some career topping performances from Bruce Dern and June Squibb, Nebraska is a must see in anyone’s book.