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Coopers' Camera

2008 Starring Jason Jones, Samantha Bee, Mike Beaver, Dave Foley, Peter Keleghan. Directed by Warren P. Sonoda (BUCK Productions).

From Bob and Doug McKenzie to Ricky and Julian to Terry and Deaner, Canadian comedy's bread and butter has always been the hoser--the stupider and drunker the better. The hoser is both a national embarrassment and he is us; a reminder of Canada's rural past that keeps coming back to haunt us like that one photo taken when you got a particularly bad haircut. Following in this patriotic tradition is Coopers' Camera's Uncle Nick (Mike Beaver), a blue-collar boor sporting a hockey jacket and a mullet-and-moustache combo that makes him look like a kind of ersatz Burton Cummings. A boorish, juvenile alcoholic who trades almost exclusively in bad racist, sexist and homophobic jokes, he's a recognizable archetype who helps make this darkly comic portrayal of braying in-laws, holiday awkwardness and family secrets so very Canadian.

Beaver, of cult comedy Ham & Cheese fame, is joined by several other notable stars for this dysfunctional family "found footage" Christmas movie set in 1985. Having lent his holiday gift fund to sleazy neighbour Bill Madison (Dave Foley), family patriarch Gord Cooper (Jason Jones) is forced to gift his family the only expensive possession Bill can offer back in lieu of payment--a slightly used VHS camcorder and some tapes. His wife, Nancy (Samantha Bee), is mortified her Orlando vacation is called off but his youngest son Teddy (Dylan Everett) is thrilled, grabbing a tape to document the family's holiday. Only this Christmas might not be one the Coopers want to remember--Nancy's pregnant again, only Gord can't remember the last time they had sex. And, maybe not coincidentally, Gord's estranged brother Tim (Peter Keleghan) is planning to drop by for dinner.

Nancy's family is coming too--when Gord's brother-in-law Nick and his trashy brood arrive, the liquor starts flowing freely and the film turns into a caustic Christmas cocktail. Gord's woefully misdirected attempts to reconcile with Tim makes matters worse rather than better, Nancy's insecure sisters try to convince her to leave her husband and Nick unsuccessfully tries to comfort Gord over his erectile dysfunction. After an excessively drunk Gord accidentally locks everyone out of the house, Nancy heads off with Tim back to his motel, leaving it up to Gord to track them down and make a last ditch effort to save his marriage.

Most Canadian Christmas films are mawkish affairs so Coopers' Camera is a nice yuletide surprise; a frequently funny film that works almost as the Canadian answer to National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. It's cartoonish and crude, for sure--Gord is sexually attracted to mannequins, elder sibling Marcus (Nick McKinlay) learns he was born a hermaphrodite and tries to kill himself by drinking Pine-Sol, and there's a scene done entirely in the bathroom with Gord on the toilet. But despite the lowbrow bits, the film is buoyed by the authentic '80s set and costume design, the performers' go-for-broke comedy and the film's cynical look at awkward family interactions during the holidays.

Unlike Bob, Doug or the Deaner, the hapless Gord and his crass extended family are ruthlessly skewered--there's no room for any sort of sympathy here--but they're undeniably recognizable. Gord isn't a lovable loser like Clark Griswold, he's a cuckolded sad sack who repeatedly disappoints his entire family with lame gifts, screams at everyone and can't remember one of his sister-in-laws names. Even young videographer Teddy, the audience surrogate, doesn't escape scorn as he tries to bribe his slightly older teenage cousin (Hayley Lochner) into stripping. But it's Nick who always steals the show. His fey clowning for the camera, his disturbingly casual statements about banging hookers and other women ("she would have said yes if she was awake!") and his seeming admission that he may have run over a child while drunk driving.

It's mostly the actors' show, and director Warren P. Sonoda gets a maple-syrup jug of talent in front of his camera which really brings the whole fruitcake together. The Daily Show's Canadian correspondents Samantha Bee and Jason Jones, who are married in real life, are pitch perfect as the put-upon couple at the centre of this merry maelstrom, but they're almost the straight characters for the outlandish relatives to riff off of. Canadian film vet Jayne Eastwood is excellent as chain-smoking Nana Gert, who insists everyone should honour her holiday tradition of eating mushrooms on toast. Keleghan conveys the appropriate smarmy cool required and McKinlay has several great scenes in which he sadly pretends his crappy gifts are the Star Wars figurines he really wanted, or mops up his vomit with the cleaning fluid he tried to kill himself with. Only Foley is uninteresting here, primarily on hand to supply a little of the full frontal nudity he has become more frequently known for.

But ultimately, it all comes down to the holiday antics Uncle Nick--though he may not be as well known as his hoser brethren, Nick is well-sketched and hilariously embarrassing, a worthy character to join their boozy, mulleted ranks. Trying to toboggan down a hill with no shirt and a smoke in his mouth, kicking down every door in a motel room, falling over in the snow while calling out for someone to bring his smokes, he's the ridiculous centre of the film, a true paean to the sleazy, inappropriate Canadian family member we all know and love. So pull a stack of 2-4s up to the hearth, throw some more Canadian Tire lock de-icer on the fire and enjoy this fiercely comic portrayal of the most depressing Christmas you may ever see.

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