Not every holiday-themed movie is a Christmas miracle. Many seem like gift paychecks to a cast doing their career’s smallest work in Santa caps. And then there are inane lumps of coal like “Love the Coopers.”
If there is a TV news service seeking material for a “War on Christmas” freakout, here is Villain No. 1. Tear-stained but upbeat, without being persuasive in either direction, this is the sort of trite kitsch-fest people see reluctantly out of duty to a visiting grandma.
Watching this family get-together dramedy is like having a soldier-doll nutcracker crush your skull in its strong jaw. Maybe worse.
An unseen narrator welcomes us to the upper-class New England home of Sam and Charlotte Cooper, played by John Goodman and Diane Keaton (changing her name since she played an identical matriarch 10 years ago in “The Family Stone”). Their postcard-pretty, commercially devout community celebrates Christmas largely as a sales gimmick for the mall. To inspire expenditure, the streets overflow with wreaths and snowmen, sentimental music and rent-a-Santas; for laughable effect there are a tiny few neighbors in yarmulkes. Ha! You see, it’s funny because they’re Jewish.
While the Coopers cover their lavish house with ornaments and take caroling trips to the local old folks’ home, their year-end is really a time when they wrestle with domestic dysfunction. “I want everyone to have the memory of a perfect Christmas,” says high-strung Charlotte. Her relationship to milquetoast Sam has been torpedoed by a long-running fight over a missed getaway vacation. While this looks to her like the couple’s last Christmas together, she hopes that ideal gift packages and cranberry sauce will make this final celebration a happy, smiling, singing run-up to their farewell. She’s like a Martha Stewart clone who doesn’t have the recipe for genuine warm emotions. It’s a very faux Christmas.
The argumentative relatives and friends filling the manse are played by a thick scrum of co-stars (Olivia Wilde, Amanda Seyfried, Marisa Tomei, Ed Helms, Alan Arkin, June Squibb). Not one emerges as a clearly drawn, recognizably human character, though the actors have the ability to do that. All are solid veterans, but the “take my kin, please” tone of the script lacks consistent comic rhythm.
Each and every character in Steven Rogers’ artificially wry screenplay sings precisely the same discordant note. Each chronically grouchy character has identical issues of troubled romance and loneliness, regardless of age, gender or personal background. No wonder they drive each other crazy.
Sabotaging a smart, tart cast that could do great work is a real shame. But the film’s worst stumble comes at the finale. In the year’s least believable denouement, the ever-present narrator’s identity is revealed, showing us a character who could never have viewed a fraction of the stories that he described. “Love the Coopers” is gift-wrapped rubbish.