Friday, 13 November 2015

Love the Coopers’ and Other Films About Christmas Discontent



“Love the Coopers,” a new holiday film directed by Jessie Nelson and starring Diane Keaton and John Goodman as Charlotte and Sam, a couple of ex-hippies who find themselves with a large Pittsburgh family after four decades of marriage, provides all the time-honored trimmings of classic seasonal fare. There’s warm, wintry music, snowy hills full of sledders and boarders, wrapped gifts and glittering evergreens.

But there’s also something very modern about this particular family get-together: Everyone is freakin’ miserable. Mr. and Mrs. Cooper, who lost one child, have also misplaced the free-spirited joi de vivre of their generation and are using this gathering to announce plans to divorce. Their children, Hank and Eleanor (Ed Helms, Olivia Wilde), siblings and grandchildren are all in the post-recession doldrums. Their Aunt Fishy is dealing with dementia. Even the family dog is a stress eater.

Is this the new Christmas film reality or just a culmination of the kind of bickering that has always been buried in the good will of the genre? George Bailey certainly frets in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but he rarely kvetches. Ms. Keaton, for one, believes a move toward verisimilitude is healthy.

“It’s a time of expectations, sadness, hope, worry,” Ms. Keaton, also a producer of “Love the Coopers,” said by telephone.

Ms. Keaton, who dealt with holiday family dysfunction in “The Family Stone,” added, “Everybody’s had pain and anger and has been hiding things from each other and trying to pretend things are better than they are.”

“Love the Coopers” aims to take that brave but dishonest face and boldly reshape it into a shouting, venting grimace. Here’s a look at other films that have tried to add bite to the occasionally bland holiday cheer:
‘Babes in Toyland’

In this 1934 film, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy rent a bedroom from the Widow Peep, the old woman who lives in a shoe. They work in a toy factory and fraternize with Bo Peep, Little Red Riding Hood and a very patient monkey dressed up to look like a cat. The Widow is behind on the rent and the diabolical landlord, Barnaby, is threatening to evict her unless she permits him to marry the comely Bo.

The Problem The pair sleep in the same bed but Oliver can barely stop his famous brow-beating long enough so that they might rescue Tom Tom the Piper’s Son (framed for kidnapping one of the Three Little Pigs) from the alligator-infested Bogeyland, where Barnaby has dominion.

The Solution Maybe Stan (who truth be told, pushes Ollie’s buttons) isn’t so dim after all. A barrel of steel darts and the wooden soldier order he botched for Christmas (100 soldiers, six feet, instead of six inches, tall) prove very effective in putting the hurt on a Bogeyman.
‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’

“I think there must be something wrong with me,” our favorite blockhead tells his pal Linus in this 1965 holiday TV special. “Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.”

The Problem In a word, commercialism. Snoopy decorates his doghouse hoping to win a prize. Sally Brown has a long list for Santa but will accept cash. Lucy is cleaning up at her psychiatry booth, and the gang at the Christmas pageant wants the glitziest tree available. But Charlie Brown provides a wisp that can’t even sustain an ornament.

The Solution Reciting from the Gospel of Luke, Linus teaches the pageant crew about the true meaning of Christmas. Peace reigns on Earth, briefly.
‘Female Trouble’

In this John Waters classic from 1974, it’s Christmas in Baltimore, and Dawn Davenport (Divine) has been waiting all year for a pair of black “cha cha heels.” On Christmas morning, her cheerful parents call out, “Come see what Santa brought you!” Dawn descends the stairs in green nightie and purple fuzzy slippers. “I better get them cha cha heels,” she mutters.

The Problem Before the present can be opened, they must join in a carol. Dawn obliges, then rips open her shoe box only to find a practical pair of footwear.

The Solution Dawn rants, stomps on the remaining gifts and pins her mother under the upended tree. She runs away from home, hitchhikes and is picked up by a hearse, driven by Divine in a rare male role.
‘The Ref’

While most of the denizens of a stately New England town do last-minute shopping, Lloyd (Kevin Spacey) and Caroline (Judy Davis) are at a marriage counseling session that’s not exactly working, in this dark comedy from 1994. Caroline shares a dream, “Lloyd’s head on a plate with a penis sticking out of his mouth,” and adds, “I said, ‘This isn’t what I ordered.’” Lloyd is asked what he thinks of the dream. “I think she should stop telling it at dinner parties.”

The Problems Their family business has failed, their son is in military school and they are contemplating divorce.

The Solution A burglar named Gus (Denis Leary in full ’90s cantankerous smoker mode) ties them up and, while waiting for his partner to arrange a getaway, is drafted into the role of marriage counselor. The arrival of their son as well as Lloyd’s brother and his family and Lloyd’s overbearing, wealthy mother all add to the challenge. Mr. Leary may have met his match.
‘Nothing Like the Holidays’

Elizabeth Peña and Alfred Molina are Anna and Edy, heads of a big Puerto Rican family, in this 2008 film. Their Chicago brood includes a returning war veteran (Freddy Rodriguez) who feels guilt over a pal’s death, a not-as-successful-as-her-family-thinks actress (Vanessa Ferlito), and a lawyer and his Anglo wife too busy to have kids (John Leguizamo and Debra Messing).

The Problems Where to begin? Thinking Edy is cheating on her, Anna announces that she wants a divorce. That’s not her only complaint: “I’m going to be the only Puerto Rican grandmother who’s going to have to adopt grandchildren.” Meanwhile, Edy isn’t cheating, he has cancer and asks his daughter-in-law to keep it a secret.

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