When did spending time with a miserable family become a holiday movie tradition?
The acid-tongued Family Stone did it right, but these films tend to get worse the broader they play it: Four Christmases, Christmas with the Kranks, Deck the Halls… even Santa was paired with a grumpy brother in Fred Claus.
Well, here’s the broadest and worst of them all, so offensive to the holiday spirit that they stripped the Christmas out of most of it: Love the Coopers is about a clan of curmudgeons so down-in-the-dumps that no amount of holiday cheer could bring a smile to their faces. Or ours.
All Sam (John Goodman) wants is to go to Africa, a trip that wife Charlotte (Diane Keaton) has put off since they had kids and now, ultimately, refuses to go on, at the expense of their marriage. Sam gives her an ultimatum – go on the trip or we’re through – which Charlotte accepts and acknowledges. And she still won’t go, for reasons that are never discussed onscreen.
Poor Sam (and Goodman): he’s the one character here whose misery is not a result of his own actions, and the one character I felt any sympathy for.
The camera, by the way, seems to have been lathered in vaseline for half of Keaton’s close-ups. There are back-and-forth dialogue scenes in which Goodman is crisp & clear and then the focus and lighting on Keaton is so soft we think the film has cut to another time and place. As if she didn’t have it bad enough playing this one-dimensional cartoon.
Sam & Charlotte’s son Hank (Ed Helms) is a single father of three who has lost his job and has been faking employment for… months? He’s so high-strung he can’t even get through a job interview with a 17-year-old stoner at Staples.
Hank’s older son Charlie (Timothée Chalamet) is hopeless in his attempts to talk to the girl of his dreams, while younger son Bo (Maxwell Simkins) pines for the days he used to hang out with his bro, and four-year-old daughter Madison (Blake Baumgartner) has a PG-13 potty mouth.
There’s also Hank’s father Bucky (Alan Arkin), a lonely sort whose only joy each day is the presence of friendly waitress Ruby (Amanda Seyfried) – who wants to skip town to get away from her own problems. Instead of rationally imparting his wisdom to Ruby upon hearing her intentions, this 80-year-old man dresses her down like a jealous high school BFF.
Charlotte’s sister Emma (Marisa Tomei) attempts to shoplift a broche at the beginning of the film, then spends the rest of the movie being driven back to the police station by Officer Williams (Anthony Mackie, in a thankless role).
The good officer has problems of his own – he’s a robot, in Emma’s words – and therapist sis tries to get him to open up. “Are you a head-shrinker,” he asks her. Head-shrinker, he says, not shrink, as if he gets his terminology from 1950s Hollywood melodrama.
There’s also Sam & Charlotte’s scathing daughter Eleanor (Olivia Wilde), who seems to hate everyone (and has her own self-esteem issues) and somehow convinces soldier-on-leave Joe (Jake Lacy) – stuck in the local airport – to come back home and pretend to be her boyfriend and meet the rest of her wretched family. Lacey’s character, the only normal guy in the movie, seems to want to make a break for it. So do we.
Now, lest you think Love the Coopers is the cinematic version of The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York on purpose, do note that transference of X-mas misery from the screen to the audience is apparently unintentional: the film is supposed to be bubbly and charming and fun according to the lighthearted touch of director Jessie Nelson (I Am Sam).
But even the dog in this movie is depressed. We know that because during two cutaway shots of the canine eating off of someone’s plate, narrator Steve Martin explains that he’s stress-eating. Yes, one such shot was not enough to get the point across.
Martin’s nonstop narration covers most of the miserable events of the film, until the characters inexplicably break out into dance in the middle of a hospital – the one place they should be somber and respectful – at the film’s climax.
The sloppy dance scene seems to signify that all of their personal troubles have been resolved, and everybody goes home happily ever after. But we know better. These people won’t magically transform into cheerful souls after the credits roll, and we leave the cinema as miserable as them.