The only thing more reliable than a disastrous family gathering for the holidays is the cliched dramatizing of such an event in the form of a Christmas-set family dramedy. Think Four Christmases, The Family Stone, Christmas with the Kranks – there are good ones too, probably, but for the most part the formula is doomed to failure. Multiple story threads and characters come together for a holiday filled with arguments, gags, and conflict that ends in disaster only to be saved when everyone learns the value of family. The endings are always far too trite and conclusive, the characters are never all that developed, and the message of family togetherness and love gets lost in the shuffle.
Well the filmmakers behind Love the Coopers got the memo on bad, holiday-set family comedies and decided to do something about it. They made a bad, holiday-set family comedy… with narration by the family dog.
Charlotte (Diane Keaton) and Sam (John Goodman) are expecting their kids and grand kids for Christmas dinner, but amid all of the pre-party hustle they’re plagued by an important disagreement. Should they tell the family at dinner that they’re getting separated or wait until after the holidays? Their son, Hank (Ed Helms), is himself a recently divorced father of three hiding his own secret that he was fired from his job and struggling financially. Charlotte’s sister, Emma (Marisa Tomei), is single and bitter about it, but when she shoplifts unnecessarily she’s arrested and sentenced to a movie-length car ride in the back seat of a closeted police officer’s (Anthony Mackie) car.
Emma and Charlotte’s father, Bucky (Alan Arkin), is distraught that the twenty-something waitress (Amanda Seyfried) he visits twice a day is moving away. Finally, black sheep daughter Eleanor (Olivia Wilde) meets a stranger named Joe (Jake Lacy) at the airport bar and convinces him to come home in the guise of her boyfriend. He’s a newly-minted Army recruit due to ship out the next day, but he agrees even knowing that his conservative values don’t quite mesh with the free-spirited Eleanor.
Of all the threads in Steven Rogers’ (P.S. I Love You) script – which also includes an aunt (June Squibb) who’s funny because she’s senile, a teen who’s funny because he’s a sloppy kisser, and a little girl who’s funny because she says “dick” – it’s only Eleanor and Joe’s story line that engages in both its humor and heart. Much of the credit there though goes to Wilde and Lacy who exhibit real charm and chemistry in their banter and glances. She’s drawn to displays of emotion, he’s drawn to her, and while the pairing is simple at times it’s also sweetly endearing and frequently funny. There’s potential in a Before Sunrise-like evening with these two, but unfortunately we’re constantly pulled away from them to spend time with far less interesting characters.
The cast is generally fine, although most of them have too little to do, but Goodman stands out from the pack as a playful, loving man worn down by his failed efforts to jump start his marriage. Keaton can’t keep up and instead gives the same harried performance she’s been banking on for the past decade or so. Helms is in his own rut as a character only slightly smarter than the one he played in this year’s Vacation reboot.
Director Jessie Nelson peppers the film with visual gimmicks that distract more than entice including brief flashbacks, some of which mix with the present, and characters who shatter before our eyes. Literally. The narrator tells us someone is emotionally shattered – and then we see them shatter into little pieces. Moments like these don’t happen often enough to create the feeling of a whimsical story being told as happens in something like (500) Days of Summer and instead feel like desperate afterthoughts.
For all the lackluster characters and cliched holiday shenanigans though the film’s biggest issue rests with the narration itself. Rather than set the scene and leave, the narrator returns again and again to step on visuals, dialogue, and scenes that should be emotionally affecting – and possibly would have been if someone wasn’t talking over them. We’re prevented from experiencing too many moments because the narrator’s telling us about them.
Love the Coopers is far from the worst of the family/holiday sub-genre, but don’t expect it to become an annual tradition.
The Upside: Olivia Wilde & Jake Lacy’s characters and story line
The Downside: Every other character and story line; narration steps all over the characters, dialogue, and emotions; feels overly long; mandatory singalong; title needs a comma unless it’s supposed to be a command