Like candy canes in Safeway and Christmas music in department stores, we can rely upon a Christmas family film released in November as a sign that the holidays have arrived uncomfortably early. The premature film comes every year; the only questions are 1) what it will be and 2) whether or not it will be any good. The answers in 2015 are 1) Love the Coopers and 2) not really.
Directed by Jessie Nelson, Love the Coopers is the story of a family where no one is happy except possibly the elderly aunt with dementia (June Squibb). Diane Keaton and John Goodman play Charlotte and Sam, a couple on the verge of divorce after forty years of marriage; Emma (Marisa Tomei) is a shoplifting pathological liar; Hank (Ed Helms) is a divorced, unemployed father of three; Eleanor (Olivia Wilde) is a playwright who claims to be constantly and passionately judged by everyone around her despite no real evidence of that; and Bucky (Alan Arkin) spends a lot of time in a diner because he feels a deep connection with a young waitress named Ruby (Amanda Seyfried). The various family members wander around individually one Christmas Eve, stewing in their own discontent and, in Emma and Eleanor’s cases, sucking nice strangers into their worlds of ennui. Since it’s Christmas Eve, everyone eventually comes together and (spoiler alert), problems are solved by the magic of Christmas.
The large cast, coupled with overlapping plot lines, are probably meant to be reminiscent of Love Actually, which played the role of holiday-film-released-in-November successfully (back in 2003, with tremendous staying power and lukewarm reviews). The mechanism works for awhile here too, as the combination of small, digestible plot pieces and the mystery of who is related to whom and how keeps viewers effectively engaged. But eventually the relationships become clear, the whole cast is brought together into one place, and the only mystery left is how many extreme close-ups of Olivia Wilde’s face you can fit into one movie before it gets weird. (It’s not much of a mystery. It was weird after the first time.)
With nothing else left to wonder about, viewers have to come to terms with the Coopers themselves, who aren’t particularly likable. That would be fine if this were an anti-hero drama on FX, but this is supposed to be the feel-good holiday movie of 2015. Members of the audience shouldn’t want to shake several of the characters and tell them to get their shit together. The performances by the cast are adequate, but the relationships were scripted to create conflict, and – with the exception of Hank, who seems pretty much screwed – all of the drama and angst seems contrived and petty.
The almost-saving grace of the movie is Steve Martin, who doesn’t appear but who narrates and shares insights/background throughout. Steve Martin tends to make things better, and with so many characters and plotlines, the narration allows for a short cut to back story that can’t be crammed in any other way. At times it’s an effective way to give context, but when the narrator explains what someone is feeling or why, it starts to seem lazy.
Realistically, none of this criticism is likely to matter. Love the Coopers is not a movie people will seek out; it’s a movie they will agree on. Families will go, probably as they come together for Thanksgiving, they will be mostly entertained for a couple of hours, and then they’ll forget they every saw this movie until a year or two from now when they come across it on cable or Netflix. If they turn it on, they might remember a storyline or a character and watch for a few minutes before deciding they’d rather watch Elf (November 2003), Home Alone (November 1990), or A Christmas Story (November 1983).