Love the Coopers and all the images you see in this review are owned by CBS Films and Lionsgate
Directed by Jessie Nelson
‘Tis the season for the bold and foolhardy to try and make films that will enter into the catalog of class Christmas movies! Probably the last one to make the leap to big leagues in regard to enduring Christmas Classics is Love Actually from 2003, but that hasn’t stopped film makers from trying to break into that market which brings us to today’s feature. Will this movie face this challenge head on and make it through the neigh impossible glass ceiling of beloved Christmas films, or will this be yet another failed attempt to recreate that Christmas magic and will be doomed to the same fate as Four Christmases, Deck the Halls, or god forbid Christmas with the Cranks? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows the misadventures of several members of the Cooper family on Christmas Eve as everyone is trying to get ready for the family dinner that is to take place later that night. At the head of the family is Sam and Charlotte Cooper (John Goodman and Diane Keaton) who are trying to keep it together long enough for them to have a happy holiday with the family despite the fact that they plan to get divorced soon after the season ends. We also have Charlotte’s sister Emma (Marisa Tomei) who’s just a bitter jerk during the holidays (think Marie Schrader from Breaking Bad) and gets caught shoplifting which means she has to get out of it while being driven to the police station by a cop played by Anthony Mackie. Charlotte and Sam’s kids are Hank and Eleanor (Ed Helms and Olivia Wilde) who have their own problems to deal with as the former just recently got divorced and then fired from his job while the later… just doesn’t like coming home for the holidays and is procrastinating in an airport with a solider she just met (Jake Lacy). There are other members of the family such as, Bucky Cooper (Alan Arkin) who’s hanging around the fringe of everyone’s story but also has his own thing going on with a waitress in a diner played by Amanda Seyfried, and Aunt Fishy (June Squibb) who’s basically playing a female version of Grandpa Simpson. With all these characters dealing with their problems during the most stressful time of the year, will they somehow manage to have a happy Christmas, or will this end in total disaster? Can this movie manage to juggle all these subplots without feeling like a poorly paced mess? Okay, seriously. Can’t we just watch Love Actually instead?
This movie is just lousy. It could have just been a mediocre Christmas film that everyone will forget about by the time the season actually rolls around, but instead it makes some seriously odd choices that turn this from ho-hum to downright obnoxious. The biggest problem by far is the framing device and narration which is grating and ultimately useless. The narrator is kept a “mystery” until the end, but it’s very obvious right away who it is which I guess they must have realized, because they flat out cheat in the movie. The narrator talks about themselves in third person to try and throw you off which feels like a really dumb move considering how lackluster the final reveal is. It’s a dumb twist they try WAY too hard to obfuscate and the movie suffers immensely for that because the reveal is what they decide to end on. Even outside of that, the narration itself is bafflingly awful and NEVER lets up. There’s no opportunity for subtly or expression through acting because anytime a character stops talking, the stupid narrator starts to jabber over the scene just so there’s NO doubt what the hell the characters are thinking. It’s insulting and a huge distraction which is enough to make this movie absolutely unbearable to sit through. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that was so irrevocably destroyed by a problem that feels so tacked on and easy to fix, but I guess someone in the editing process thought this movie was just TOO confusing for modern audiences to grasp without someone explaining it to them.
Now while that one issue is easily the worst thing about this movie, there’s still PLENTY more that’s wrong with this. It’s a series of vignettes as we follow each member of the family as they bitch and moan their way through the holiday season which is about as enjoyable as it sounds. John Goodman and Diane Keaton snipe at each other while trying to hold things together, Olivia Wilde just keeps complaining about her parents, and Ed Helms is… well himself basically (a put upon sad sack). The only one who stands out as somewhat interesting is Alan Arkin and his odd friendship Amanda Seyfried. It’s not really a romantic connection they have, but it sort of skirts along that line which makes it far more engaging than the endless parade of whiners and complainers who fill the screen throughout the rest of the films running time. Marisa Tomei’s story at least has a real conflict in it (how do I keep from going to jail today?) so she at least her subplot has something to RESOLVE, but she also has to share the screen with Anthony Mackie who’s character is just uninteresting. I get that the POINT of his character is that he can’t open up emotionally to anyone so he’s very reserved and no nonsense, but that also makes him a very boring to watch.
This is all intentional though, right? Make sure to tear everyone down and let their bullshit bubble to the surface so they can let it out and come together as a family for the holiday season. Well there are two problems with that. First, it’s not all that entertaining to watch as we see these characters go through their struggles. There are indeed moments of levity and some well executed moments, but for the most part it’s hard to care what ends up happening to these people, especially considering how low the stakes are. The other problem is that I don’t buy the reconciliation at the end. Something happens to get everyone to stop fighting for a moment and this becomes the linchpin for everyone to start getting over their problems and come together. The problem is that the thing that happens feels contrived and I just didn’t buy that this would be the impetus for them all to start reflecting on their lives and get past their (sometimes decades old) problems. All I thought of is what’s gonna happen on December twenty-sixth once they all have to go back to their normal lives. I guess they did such a good job of showing how unhappy everyone here is that the hand waves they do at the end aren’t enough for us to buy the happy ending.
Also, I think this movie has a problem with women. It’s not… overt, but each of the stories here has something odd in them in regards to the female characters that, on their own would only be sort of noteworthy, but taken all together definitely raised a red flag for me. John Goodman and Diane Keaton are getting a divorce over something that isn’t ACTUALLY the issue but the symbolic representation of them drifting apart. The problem is that Diane Keaton (more so than John Goodman) is portrayed to be responsible for their issues and is the only one to take the step towards reconciliation by giving into that symbolic issue she has long since stood her ground against doing. I’m not saying she’s blameless, but she’s not the only one in that marriage and it just feels odd that their story ends on a note the puts everything on her. Marisa Tomei as Diane Keaton’s younger sister is unmarried and without kids and is incredibly jealous and bitter towards her sister who DOES have a family. She ends up doing stupid things to lash out about it and she’s also very vain and incredibly selfish. So on top of having Diane Keaton be a willing martyr (and the film celebrating this), they make her sister a bitter spinster. Oh, and Olivia Wilde? She gets it the worst. She’s a clichéd passionate artist who turns her nose up at the less cultured and religious types and so is constantly looked down upon in the movie. The solider guy (Jake Lacy) is judging her for almost every decision she’s made in her life, but still hangs around because he finds her hot. That’s really about it for his purpose in the movie. He clashed with her on any sort of ideological issue, yet still hangs around in the hope of getting laid. It’s not just him though that’s being oddly obsessed with her. Almost every single shot of her in this movie is an INSANE close up shot of her face which admittedly is very nice to look at, but it’s so damn distracting that NO ONE ELSE IN THE MOVIE is filmed like this!
It’s just another drop in the bucket that makes me think this movie has some strange feelings about women. The movie eventually does side with solider boy because Olivia Wilde (during that ‘SOLVE EVERYTHING’ ending) makes a decision that comes out of freaking nowhere and only exists to confirm to the audience that she’s been living her life the wrong way up to this point. If the decision had made SENSE that’d be one thing, but the movie doesn’t feel the need to give any real closure on these stories when they just have to cut the camera off before anyone realizes that nothing is actually getting fixed that night. There are plenty more examples of this movie’s weird and somewhat sexist elements. Ed Helm’s ex-wife (Alex Borstein) is trashed throughout the movie and is given specifically annoying characteristics, one his sons is a creepy teenager yet still manages to find a girl who inexplicably likes him despite him constantly staring at her tits, June Squibb plays the clichéd doddering old lady which is a cliché that hasn’t been funny since the Cold War, and I’m sure there’s more I can point out. I guess Amanda Seyfried gets off okay? No wait, she’s basically a trophy at the end of this and is given to one of the characters as a reward for their growth as a person that night. Never mind.
There are some good things in this despite all its flaws. Every actor in this is doing their job and are great in their individual roles even if those roles aren’t all that deep or interesting. Alan Arkin and Amanda Seyfried actually do have some genuine chemistry which makes their story the best of the bunch with Olivia Wilde’s story coming in second (despite being the most flawed) simply because of how great of an actress she is. Seriously, Olivia Wilde is WAY underrated and just had a crappy year that’s still dogging her career (I’m pretty sure it was the same year for Ryan Reynolds too). They have ONE visual gimmick in here that’s okay which is that they will occasionally switch out actors for their younger selves to prove a point which is at least a decent idea if not a very inspired one. When Diane Keaton and Marisa Tomei start fighting, they’re briefly replaced by actors portraying their younger selves. When Alan Arkin is opening up to Amanda Seyfried, she starts to see him as his younger self. It’s at least something to give this a bit of visual flair to this by the numbers production so at least it has THAT going for it.
So what can we learn from all this? With the paint by numbers story, overly simplistic ending, and a narration that belabors the point to a ludicrous degree, it seems that the filmmakers didn’t trust their audience enough to leave any doubt as to what this is about. I’m sometimes inclined to agree that the movie going populace isn’t always the brightest group of people out there (just look at the box office for the Transformers movies), but I don’t think the audience looking to see this movie is as dumb as the film makers assume they are, and just ended up making a move that’s overly familiar and with a gimmick that makes it unbearable to watch. If the script had just a bit more bite to it or if the narration was excised entirely, this might have been worth seeing. As it stands though, it’s just trite and histrionic without much of a heart or confidence. If you can’t trust your audience to understand your story, maybe you’re story isn’t worth telling in the first place.
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