Check in for Christmas
Hotel Transylvania 2,
hile the three films under review this week are aimed at the Christmas market, only Hotel Transylvania and Love the Coopers are suitable for children, though they may find the latter a bit dull. The Night Before is absolutely adults only, and I don’t recommend it to them either.
Hotel Transylvania 2 is the best of the three, a clever and funny animated romp that kids and adults will enjoy. It sees the return of most of the key cast and crew from its equally clever and funny predecessor of 2012, including director Genndy Tartakovsky and writer Robert Smigel, who shares scriptwriting credit with star Adam Sandler.
Seven years have passed since the end of the first film, which is but a blip when, like Count Dracula (Sandler), you are in your 500s. Drac’s daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) marries her human boyfriend Jonathan and soon there’s a baby on the way. Drac, controlling and overprotective as ever, bones up by reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Vampire.
But there lies the rub: will the child of a human and a vampire be one or the other, or some sort of hybrid? Little Dennis is born and Drac has no doubts: “Thousands of years of Dracula genes, it is not going to happen,’’ he declares when it’s suggested his grandson may be a human. Jonathan’s mother is not so certain: “Are we sure he is a vampire? Not that there’s anything wrong with that …”
The action of the film turns on this question and unfolds in the lead-up to Dennis’s fifth birthday, by which age he is supposed to have produced fangs. Drac is determined to prove the boy is a bloodsucker — “He’s just a late fanger” — and so keep him and his beloved daughter with him at the hotel, a plan Jonathan is happy to go along with as he feels at home there.
When Mavis and Jonathan visit his parents in California, leaving Dennis with “Vampa”, Drac springs into action, enlisting his buddies Frankenstein’s monster (Kevin James), Wayne the werewolf (Steve Buscemi), Murray the mummy (Keegan-Michael Key) and Griffin the invisible man (David Spade) on a quest to prove “Dennisavitch” is a vampire. A scene where Drac “teaches” the boy to fly by throwing him off a rickety tower is a classic. Buscemi’s weary werewolf is also a treat.
Things take an interesting turn when Drac’s estranged father Count Vlad (Mel Brooks) turns
The Night Before, up. He’s old school and doesn’t go in for modern notions of living peacefully with humans. It all builds to a satisfying conclusion that leaves lots of room for a third film, due in 2018. It wouldn’t be December without a baggy, overtalky American dramedy about a dysfunctional extended family coming together for the holidays, bitching and bickering and letting cats out bags, before finding some sort of resolution that reminds them — and us — of the true spirit of Christmas. This year it is Love the Coopers, which takes its title from the family’s Christmas card sign off. I suppose there’s a deliberate double meaning there, but I can’t but help be irked by the missing comma.
Charlotte and Sam Cooper (Diane Keaton and John Goodman) have been married for 40 years but are about to split up. The reasons are not particularly clear: he misses the wilder days of their youth and resents that she has refused to join him on a dream trip to Africa. Why he couldn’t have just gone to Africa by himself some time in the past four decades is a mystery.
Their son Hank (Ed Helms) is also going through a divorce and hiding the fact he’s unemployed. Their unattached minor playwright daughter Eleanor (Olivia Wilde) picks up a soldier (Jake Lacy) at the airport and persuades him to pretend to be her boyfriend to make her parents happy.
This fake relationship is mined hard for comedy and profundity, but yields little of either. When the religious GI (who is named Joe) asks Eleanor what she believes in, she replies, “I believe in the sound of Nina Simone’s voice.”
Also heading to the Coopers for Christmas dinner are Charlotte’s childless sister Emma (Marisa Tomei) and their father Bucky (a solid Alan Arkin), who has a thing for Ruby (Amanda Seyfried), the beautiful young waitress at his local diner. With so many characters, you’d think director Jessie Nelson ( I Am Sam) could let them tell the story, but every so often we have the dots unnecessarily joined for us by a narrator, who appears to be the family dog (voiced by Steve Martin).
Charlotte just wants the family to have “one last, perfect Christmas” before she and Sam break the bad news about their marriage. Love the Coopers sets itself up to explore some interesting if not original questions — the growing apart of long-term couples, parents’ over-investment in their children’s lives, sibling rivalries, the ridiculous stress of the festive season — but it baulks at probing too deep and instead retreats into schmaltz.
There is one standout scene, and it’s no coincidence it takes place in isolation from the overworked main story: Emma, caught shoplifting, starts a tentative, personal conversation with the young black arresting officer (Anthony Mackie) as they drive to the police station. Tomei and Mackie are fine actors and in this quiet, restrained scene they deliver the ordinary, sometimes painful reality of life that the rest of the film so lacks. Not even Mackie can do much for The Night Before, the latest offering from Canadian-American comedian and filmmaker Seth Rogen. If we accept the word dramedy to denote comedydrama, may I suggest crudemy for Rogen’s oeuvre? As with the appalling Pyongyang-set The Interview of last year, The Night Before relies on swearing, stereotypes, causing offence and adolescent sexual jokes for its laughs.
Take the film’s low point, in which James Franco (aptly playing himself) texts photos of his penis to Rogen’s drug-addled Isaac, who wonders if he should suck it. Not finding that funny doesn’t make you a prude; it just makes you someone who doesn’t find it funny. A similar point could be made for the scene in which Isaac records a message to his unborn child in which he calls him or her a “c..t’’. I could go on, as Jonathan Levine’s film does.
Isaac, Chris (Mackie) and Ethan (a miscast Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are best friends from school who formed a bond when Ethan’s parents were killed in a car accident. Every Christmas Eve they link up, hit the streets of New York, get off their faces and, quote, “f..k shit up’’.
But now it’s 2015: Isaac is a lawyer, married and soon to be a father, while Chris has found fame as a football player. They have decided this Christmas Eve will be the last ride of the three amigos, and Ethan has reluctantly agreed. When Ethan steals three tickets to an annual party the trio have been trying to get into forever, this becomes the focus of their night.
If there is a positive to be found in The Night Before, it’s in the female characters, who are the only grown-ups in sight. Jillian Bell is funny and believable as Isaac’s wife Betsy, as is Lizzy Caplan as Ethan’s ex-girlfriend Diana. Singer Miley Cyrus pops up for a cameo and for once doesn’t come across as the least sensible person in the room, thanks to Franco’s presence.
There’s a clunky echo of A Christmas Carol courtesy of a drug dealer named Mr Green (Michael Shannon) but, honestly, if Charles Dickens saw this he’d be forgiven for letting loose a swear word or two of his own.
above, is clever and funny, while
below, with Anthony Mackie, has few redeeming qualities