The opening scene of Love the Coopers finds the Cooper family matriarch signing the last of her Christmas cards. “Love, The Coopers,” she writes with a flourish. The title of the movie, however, lacks the comma, making it less a warm present to us all, and more a demand to love the family we’ll be spending the next two hours with. This directive would go over easier if we were given sharply drawn characters who come into focus quickly. But we don’t. It’s a sprawling holiday dramedy dripping with sap and spreading its large ensemble amongst several connected plotlines, some far more interesting than others. It’s a sloppy Christmassy mess, but because a cast of likable charmers plays the characters, the movie has its moments anyway.
Opening on the morning of Christmas Eve, the screenplay by Steven Rogers (Stepmom) finds a large extended family all over Pittsburgh in a rush to get last minute holiday shopping and planning out of the way before the night’s big family dinner. It’s a belabored, scattered setup, hoping to gain some interest out of mystery, keeping the family connections murky until they crystallize as the people congregate around the cookbook-photo-spread Christmas supper. Overly expository narration (by Steve Martin, oddly drained of humor, and oozing storybook affect) tells us a lot, but illuminates little as we find a variety of small human dramas played broad. There’s a layer of schmaltz slathered all over an awkward mix of bad sitcom pacing and drooling manipulation.
There’s a divorced dad (Ed Helms) trying to hide his job loss from his ex-wife (Alex Borstein). Their painfully uncomfortable teen son (Timothée Chalamet) wants his first kiss, their youngest son (Maxwell Simkins) wants a bike, and their toddler daughter (Blake Baumgartner) has learned a curse word. There’s a kind old man (Alan Arkin) with a platonic crush on a sweet waitress (Amanda Seyfried). There’s a couple in their sixties (Diane Keaton and John Goodman) happy to host a family holiday for one last time, since they plan to use it to announce their impending divorce. There’s a lonely middle-aged woman (Marisa Tomei) who’s caught shoplifting (by cop Anthony Mackie) and so might be late for dinner. Finally, there’s a cynical liberal playwright (Olivia Wilde) who Meets Cute with a conservative soldier (Jake Lacy) in an airport bar. Between these stories are stock-footage-ready shots of snowy streets, Santas, and more carolers around every corner than I’ve ever seen in real life.
That’s quite a lot of plot to juggle, especially when it’s not all that deftly edited, and written with thin tin-eared stereotypes. (I didn’t even mention the elderly aunt (June Squibb) whose dementia is used exclusively for laughs.) It develops convolutedly, layered with flashing flashbacks to many characters’ pasts. You might think that’d bring extra heft to the emotional stakes, but it often confuses the issue, mistaking whats for whys when it comes to fleshing out the characters. Director Jessie Nelson (with her first directing credit since 2001’s I Am Sam) cross-cuts unevenly, allowing one character’s cross-town car trip to take as long as another’s grocery shopping, caroling, sledding, and cooking combined. This all could’ve benefited from a smoother approach to ensemble storytelling, more Altman-esque, or at least on the level of a Love Actually or The Best Man Holiday.
The movie spends its time lurching from storyline to storyline, haphazardly developed, largely unconvincing, tonally confused, both too calculated and weirdly adrift. And yet, as frazzled as this setup is, some of it works, and the predictable payoffs are rather sweet in their own ways. The talented cast is too good, especially when Nelson allows them real sensitive moments of connection, to let a sloppy script drag them down. When Keaton and Goodman argue, and when they wistfully reminisce about the good times and the bad they’ve shared over forty years of marriage, there’s real emotional weight. And in the airport scenes between Wilde and Lacy there develops a low-key romantic comedy that’s rather lovely in its chemistry and prickly warmth.
There’s almost enough gooey goodness in the moments that work to override the bad, like the final moments, which reveal the narrator is not omniscient, as has seemed to be the case, but instead a character we meet who has no possible way of knowing everything he’s been telling us. So it’s not a particularly good movie overall. It’s clumsy, obvious, full of clunky failed comedy and overtly telegraphed messages. (Could you guess it’ll be about valuing family togetherness and appreciating what you have right in front of you?) But it also has enough earnest sentiment to make it moderately effective on any big softies in the audience. I have to admit, from time to time, I was one of them. There’s no compelling reason to recommend Love the Coopers except the fleeting moments of button-pushing emotion, which might be enough if you’re willing to let yourself give in and be an easy target for that sort of thing.