The star-studded home-for-the-holidays Christmas movie has become as much a yearly tradition as caroling, hot cider and sledding in freshly packed snow. This year’s installment, “Love the Coopers,” promises to deliver on the cinematic cheer, but is more of an airing of grievances than a celebration. Centering around the misadventures of the large Cooper clan on Christmas Eve, the family has to dredge up all of their demons for its members to truly appreciate family.
We are introduced to the Coopers via an omnipresent narrator, a soul who seems to know them better than they do, detailing their inner monologues. There’s the matriarch and patriarch, Charlotte (Diane Keaton) and Sam (John Goodman), mourning their lost spark, and son Hank (Ed Helms) divorcing and unemployed. We’re also introduced to daughter Eleanor (Olivia Wilde), lingering at the airport bar, trying to prolong returning home to her family right away.
There are also a few loose ends that we don’t know are connected right away. Emma (Marisa Tomei) gets caught shoplifting a gift and bonds with her arresting officer (Anthony Mackie), claiming to be a psychiatrist. Bucky (Alan Arkin) has to bid farewell to his favorite diner waitress on her last day, the beautiful, sad Ruby (Amanda Seyfried). Slowly the threads are pulled together and the family gathers around a beautiful table to eat, and fight.
Fight they do. Among the picturesque white Christmas tableau “Love the Coopers” is quite a dark and cynical film, with familial spats that are too real to be comfortable. Charlotte squabbles with her husband, her daughter and sister, and while Keaton’s inimitable shrill, frazzled character is perfect for the role, she’s almost hard to watch. These characters are all either sad and broken, or crazy, or both. As they misbehave and lash out, it’s undeniably relatable, but it doesn’t quite inspire the warm fuzzies.
Stylistically, the film piles on the Christmas trappings (the caroling is relentless), but is shot with a dim, dark style that shows how haggard and sad the Coopers are. There’s also the choice made to visualize so many of their memories and ghosts that haunt their present — lost loved ones, their youth and happiness, their relationships. With the voice-over, multiple storylines, and the flashbacks, it never quite hits a consistent stride.
The bright spot in the film is the chemistry between Wilde as Eleanor and Jake Lacy as Joe, a soldier she connects with in the airport. She convinces him to come home to pose as her boyfriend to meet the parents, and on this crazy whim, they start to fall for each other. The connection between them is electric. Wilde is a reckless playwright with self-destructive romantic tendencies, and Lacy is a stoic, heroic conservative. Lacy has an ability to elevate any material he’s in — a stealthy scene-stealer. Their storyline could have made a great, and nuanced little holiday film. Alas, “Love the Coopers” focuses too much on interfamily drama to salvage the real Christmas spirit.
LOVE THE COOPERS
☆☆ 1/2 out of 5
Cast: Diane Keaton, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Olivia Wilde, Ed Helms, Jake Lacy, Amanda Seyfried.
Director: Jessie Nelson.
Running time: 1:47.
Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some sexuality.