I’m a sucker for Christmas movies. I’m not sure why, but broken families coming together and putting away their differences to help one another work through their issues during a time of love and wonder just hits me the right way. Hans Gruber once said, “It’s Christmas, Theo. It’s a time of miracles.” But the season itself isn’t always necessary for the plot — a lot of the time, the holiday is simply used as a plot device to bring together several characters who would normally have no other reason to get together and showcases each one in varied storylines that coalesce nicely by the end. There are many elements that go into cooking up a familiar, yet inspirational Christmas tale, and it’s obvious when one is missing. With Love the Coopers, what gets ignored is one of the most necessary ingredients for keeping the movie from becoming a stale fruitcake — love.
This time around, the patriarchs highlighted are Sam (John Goodman) and Charlotte Cooper (Diane Keaton), a couple desperate to get through one last family Christmas before they announce their separation after 40 years of marriage. It’s a good hook that doesn’t have enough sharp wit or strength to keep you interested. Almost the entire cast seems bored out of their gourds, but no more so than Goodman, who seems out of touch and tired. It could very well be an acting choice to be so despondent, but it never goes beyond much more than Sam being dead inside. With such a rocky marriage crumbling before our eyes, I wanted to see more passion come through, especially in the fights that are crucial to the character wanting to rebuild the foundation of who they once were. Of course, this isn’t only Goodman’s fault; screenwriter Steven Rogers is all over the place in style and tone, unable to hone in on any real, clear direction.
Let’s unpack the rest of the family, shall we?
First up, there’s Charlotte’s sister, Emma (Marisa Tomei), who is introduced stealing a broach for Charlotte’s Christmas gift, supposedly because she feels highly inadequate when it comes to her big sister. She doesn’t even make it to the door when she’s carted off in a police cruiser by Officer Williams (Anthony Mackie). Not only does this storyline go absolutely nowhere (the whole idea that Emma is able to reconcile with her sister or become a better person simply because of this one conversation, I didn’t buy it – Emma could have learned this lesson in a much better, more natural way), but the only reason the subplot seems to exist is in order to fill the mandatory person of color/LGBT quota for the film, doing so in one fell swoop. Yay for activism, I guess.
Then there’s Charlotte and Emma’s father, Bucky (Alan Arkin), who seems to have some awkwardly quasi May-December romance with Ruby (Amanda Seyfried), a waitress with a tragic past that’s used most often for comic fodder (which is incredibly sad given the weight Rogers could have given this storyline to provide a much-needed tonal balance). I didn’t mind that these two characters find each other attractive based on who they are and their personalities, but I was never captivated by their relationship. There was a similar type of relationship between Denzel Washington and Chloë Grace Moretz in last year’s The Equalizer, which ended up being the best part of the film because it was handled with caring hands. Here, it just feels weird and lifeless.
Moving onto Sam and Charlotte’s children, Hank (Ed Helms) is a family man himself with three of his own kids. He doesn’t tell anyone he’s lost his job as a portrait taker at Sears (replaced with automation, natch) and is hard-pressed to find another one. Somehow, everyone ends up knowing anyway causing the entire plot to become moot faster than ice-cream melting on the sidewalk on a hot summer afternoon. Hank is also divorced to someone we really don’t get to know beyond her penchant for spitting food when she talks? Their kids end up being no more than a mixed bag of forced comedic moments, which include: a daughter (Blake Baumgartner) who has a penchant to blurt out “You’re such a dick” to everyone, a sentiment whose payoff is rudely interrupted and never given the chance to shine; a young son (Maxwell Simkins) seeking an unknown gift he never gets; and an elder son (Timothée Chalamet) looking for his first kiss which, admittedly, is mildly funny, at least when the entire family gets to see it happen.
The only endearing storyline revolves around Eleanor (Olivia Wilde), who while hiding out in the airport afraid of disappointing her parents once again, talks up Joe (Jake Lacy), a soldier grounded due to weather. The two couldn’t be more different, or so the movie will have you believe: she’s a compulsively lying, cheating, floozy of a Democrat; he’s a stand-up, patriotic good-ole religious Republican. But it works, mostly because the two actors share the most chemistry of anyone else on screen. They’re also given the most time and energy, and though there are still plenty of moments that will make you cringe and find fault in Rogers’s capabilities, they are the only couple I truly come to care about.
The tone is what hurts the film the most, especially when Rogers tries to squeeze laughs from quick flashbacks told through Steve Martin’s labored narration. These flashes (and sometimes dreams or desires) are meant to add levity to the film, but they come off as forced and unnecessary, the narration simply there to pay off a twist that doesn’t feel warranted. There’s a moment late in the film when Charlotte and Emma are fighting where director Jessie Nelson jump cuts between their adult selves and them as children. This moment is far more effective than any of the tired narration in showing the differences between the characters and how much they rely on remembering their pasts as a piece of who they are. With more moment like this filtered throughout, perhaps the filmmakers would have been able to invite you in with a warm embrace rather than leaving you out in the cold feeling wholly unloved.
My Grade: C-
Next week, new movies include The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 2, The Night Before and Secret In Their Eyes. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.