Nothing goes together like Christmas and family. We come together to eat, drink, and be merry. Gifts are exchanged. Wrapping paper is discarded without a thought except for what’s inside bright, shiny boxes. Feasts are devoured and everyone gets along. Right? Well, not exactly. Sometimes families and Christmas often mix together like oil and water. We bitch and squabble. The smallest thing can set off a not so joyous noise.
Most of the family Christmas movies, by “family” we don’t mean family friendly, follow the same patterns and themes. In family Christmas movies people are either dying or dead. Usually there’s a conflict between family members that is either resolved before the death of a character or after the death. It’s familiar territory the four Christmas films in this review all share.
In Nothing Like the Holidays, Edy Rodriguez (Alfred Molina, Spider-man 2) has been diagnosed with cancer. In The Family Stone, Sybil Stone (Diane Keaton, The Godfather) has also been diagnosed with cancer. Both parents decide not tell their perspective families of their condition so they may have one last happy holiday. The difference between the two is Edy’s decision to conceal his condition drives his family apart.
Silence may be golden, but in Edy’s case it’s devastating. Edy’s wife, played by the late Elizabeth Pena (Rush Hour), announces to her children at dinner she’s divorcing their father. After her announcement old, buried sibling rivalries and grudges boil to the surface and overflow. It’s bad enough Edy’s son, Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez, Lady in the Water), decides to reenlist with the Army so he can return to Afghanistan. Yes, divorce at Christmas makes a happy time for the whole family. No, it doesn’t and why Edy kept up the charade is a mystery the script doesn’t answer.
Sybil’s family wasn’t necessarily falling apart before or after she revealed to her family of her cancer diagnosis. In fact, the Stone family seems to have their holiday shit together. It’s actually Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker in a rare non-annoying performance) who causes the anarchy at the Stone’s family Christmas. To be fair, it’s not all Meredith’s fault. Although the Stone family seems to be free loving, tolerant hippie liberals they do everything to stop their brother and son, Everett (Dermot Mulroney, s) from marrying Meredith.
Edy is dying in the Nothing Like the Holidays, Sybil dies before the end of The Family Stone and Almost Christmas opens ten months after the death of Walter’s (Danny Glover, Lethal Weapon) wife. A time like this should be a time for reflection and celebrating the life of loved one. However, it turns into one family squabble after another starting with sisters played by Gabrielle Union (Being Mary Jane) and Kimberly Elise (For Colored Girls).
Most families know why there is tension between members. The viewer doesn’t learn until late in the movie why the sisters don’t get along with each other. It’s the job of a movie to let the viewer in on why the sisters are at each other’s throats. This is only one of the problems in a movie that had started out about a family coming together after the death of their mother.
The other problem with Almost the Holidays are the characters in the family. Other than the sisters, the family of characters seem too perfect. One of Walter’s sons, Christian (Romany Malco, Weeds) is running a successful bid for Congress. Another son is set to make it big in the NFL. Even Aunt May (Mo’Nigue, Precious) is a super star who has backed the likes of Chaka Khan and Tina Turner. These perfect characters require the script writer to create conflict that comes as forced and not genuine.
Christian, in an attempt to secure big backers, promises to tear down a row of city buildings. One of these buildings is the soup kitchen Walter and Grace volunteered at for years. However, it’s not until Christian decides to go along with the redevelopment that we learn of the Walrer/Grace connection. The audience should have been in on how important the soup kitchen was to Walter from the very beginning of the movie.
Love the Coopers is another movie about family dysfunction exposed at the holidays. This time the family in question is, of course, the Coopers. Their story doesn’t start over the death of someone, but over the end of Sam (John Goodman) and Charlotte’s (Diane Keaton) marriage. The death, or near death, doesn’t come until near the end of the movie.
The Coopers, for the most part, are like many families you may know. There’s no super star upcoming football player or congressman. No one in the Coopers has any kind of career in Hollywood like Roxanna in Nothing Like the Holidays and no one is exchanging love interests like in The Family Stone. No, the Coopers are just like any average family you would find on any neighborhood street in America.
Average families have their problems too. Like the sisters in Almost Christmas, Charlotte and Emma (Marisa Tomei, Spider-Man: Homecoming) haven’t gotten along in years. There’s also a lot of love problems within the Cooper clan. Sam wants to keep his love, their grandson Charlie doesn’t know how to approach his love interest, and their daughter Eleanor doesn’t think she deserves love. However, all these problems are solved over the almost death of the grandfather and father Bucky (Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine).
The Coopers may be an average family, but their problems are solved just like Walter’s family’s problems, the Stones’s issues, and the Rodriguezes’s problems are solved. What sets Love the Coopers apart from these other movies is the story is narrated by the family dog, Rags (voiced by an almost unrecognizable Steve Martin). It’s a cute little device that let’s us know not only is Christmas a magical time, but our pets know more than they let on.
All of these types of movies at times feel hollow and fake. We’re lead to believe one day, even a special day like Christmas, can heal a life time of mistakes. But maybe we want our family Christmas movies to be a little cheesy and safe. Christmas, after all, is a magical time. So, why can’t it heal a lifetime of divide?