A crowded narrative makes it difficult to ‘Love the Coopers’
Director: Jessie Nelson
Writer: Steven Rogers
Starring: Diane Keaton, John Goodman, June Squibb, Marisa Tomei, Ed Helms, Alan Arkin, Olivia Wilde, and Amanda Seyfried
“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”
My father used to sing this classic Christmas song – seemingly – every day between Thanksgiving and Christmas while we were growing up. True to form, my dad only knew the one line: It’s the most wonderful time of the year. He loved to repeat, so his singing – of one choice lyric of one song - became a daily staple of our lives (like it or not) for about 30 days in between the two holidays each and every year.
The most wonderful time of the year? Well, that’s debatable, but that’s family.
In “Love the Coopers”, director Jessie Nelson (“I Am Sam”, “Corrina, Corrina”) packages a Christmas film, and the movie poster’s tagline states, “You Can’t Regift Family.” This is a PG-13 Christmas movie, so the content is not for the entire family, but in many ways, the Coopers could represent any American household, because they are a bit dysfunctional. In other words, they are human.
Many big name stars make up an impressive ensemble cast of humans in this movie, including Diane Keaton, John Goodman, June Squibb, Marisa Tomei, Ed Helms, Alan Arkin, Olivia Wilde, and Amanda Seyfried, and Nelson places their characters on a course for Christmas Eve dinner at Sam (Goodman) and Charlotte’s (Keaton) suburban Pittsburgh home. The family dinner does not arrive until the film’s second act, and prior to this amazing-looking turkey meal – including all of the trimmings, table placings and household decorations which would make the CEO of Crate & Barrel blush with pride – we learn about the emotional damage each one of the Coopers is currently enduring.
The 30 year-old and perpetually single Eleanor (Wilde) cannot bear walking into the house without a boyfriend or a fiancé on her arm. Bucky (Arkin) – who is a great-grandfather - feels abandoned because his crush, a 20 year-old waitress named Ruby (Seyfried), is moving to Hot Coffee, Mississippi. (Yes, I know, this relationship and Ruby’s plans are bizarre.) Charlotte’s sister Emma (Tomei) gets into some legal trouble. Hank (Helms) loses his job and his children feel the effects of his divorce. Speaking of marital problems, Sam and Charlotte are talking about splitting up as well.
Merry Christmas, right?
Well, the script tries to balance all of this strife with humor, of the conversational and slapstick kind. Writer Steven Rogers certainly pens rich material for each of the characters. He pairs up each Cooper with a person to converse with, and we learn lots of details about their lives and, of course, their problems. By and large, I love colorful writing, but I have two major issues with the narrative in “Love the Coopers”.
First, the players’ stories are so dense and filled with so many piles of facts and elements of their lives, the characters feel inauthentic. With small reveals like a career “peaking at 19”, a first romantic encounter with “My Sharona” playing in the background, not feeling good enough on a skating rink as a kid, and lending 67 movies to a trusted friend are repeatedly barreled down on the audience like we are standing on the side of a freeway as drivers blurt out anecdotes while blowing past us at 80 mph. Certainly, one can relate to the individual tales of woe, and they do occasionally connect, but the overall blitzkrieg of verbal jabber is overwhelming.
Secondly, the aforementioned pairing of the characters created six different points of conflict and engagement, but, regrettably, I only found one remotely believable. As an example, Emma gets herself arrested and while pleading her case – in the back of a police car – the officer (Anthony Mackie) willingly receives life counseling from her. I must admit, a policeman has never stuffed me in the back seat of his car, but I am pretty certain I would not ask about his childhood relationship with his mother. Normally, one has to suspend disbelief when watching a science fiction movie, but I found myself struggling and eventually giving up – in an “Oh Brother” moment - when the officer started opening up to his suspect’s “thoughtful” inquiry.
Most unfortunately, this holiday movie feels completely manufactured and engineered rather than organically and genuinely composed. Keaton is usually good – and (quite frankly) typecast – as the “has it all together” matriarch, and with an exceptional cast, “Love the Coopers” has the look of a solid holiday experience. Along the way, we are treated to some wonderful sights of the season like dachshunds dressed in Christmas outfits, gingerbread men and women wearing thongs, 37 snow globes, and constant falling snow. We also get some thoughtful insights into what makes us human and some very funny moments as well. Squibb (“Nebraska”) is particularly hilarious as Aunt Fishy. On the other hand, as a poorly-constructed, ham-handed plot device takes the audience to the movie’s third act and eventually towards the meaning of family, I was thinking back to much better Christmas movies.
Where is a fragile “French” leg lamp or Zuzu’s pedals when you need them?
How about some Christmas carolers? Perhaps, some could swing by and sing the lyric “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” a few hundred times. (2/4 stars)