“LOVE THE COOPERS” — 1 star — Diane Keaton, John Goodman, Ed Helms, Alex Borstein, Timothee Chalamet; PG-13 (thematic elements, language and some sexuality); in general release
You will not love the Coopers. You won’t even like them. The Coopers are a miserable bunch, an ensemble cast of unlikable cynics and sad sacks who snuff out the few flickering beacons of hope among them. Even a disingenuous happy ending can’t shake the feeling that “Love the Coopers” is a Christmas movie made by people who hate Christmas.
The heart of this dysfunction is Charlotte (Diane Keaton) and Sam (John Goodman), an older couple that, ironically, are about to separate after 40 years together. Their son Hank (Ed Helms) is an out-of-work department store photographer and divorcee trying to raise three kids. Charlotte’s younger sister Emma (Marisa Tomei) has never married, is horribly jealous of her perfect sister and gets arrested for shoplifting while Christmas shopping.
Then there’s Eleanor (Olivia Wilde), a walking liberal cliché who starts spouting one-liners about Fox News and evolution and global warming within seconds of meeting the clean-cut Army man Joe (Jake Lacy) at an airport bar and finding out he’s a Christian Republican. Eleanor’s most meaningful relationship is the affair she’s having with a married doctor, and her scenes with Joe feel like a rejected Meg Ryan romantic comedy that was soaked in a vat of post-9/11 angst.
The closest thing to a meaningful storyline comes from Bucky (Alan Arkin), the aging patriarch of this awful bunch, who makes daily visits to a local diner to (avoid his awful family?) recommend classic movies to his regular waitress Ruby (Amanda Seyfried). He’s kind of a surrogate father figure to her, and they’d feel like the movie’s high point if their scenes didn’t suffer from some of the same clunky humor as everyone else.
If that isn’t enough of an ensemble cast for you, there are also subplots for Hank’s kids, and we even get a random life story montage for a mall cop. Anthony Mackie is also underused as Officer Williams, a gay cop who tries to take Emma downtown for processing.
Oh, Steve Martin narrates as the internal voice of the family dog. So there’s that, too.
Once all the setups are in place, director Jessie Nelson just drags viewers through the muck with everyone for an hour and a half. Charlotte and Sam bicker wherever they go, and you feel like the third wheel of someone’s public breakup. Emma tries to convince Officer Williams to let her off easy by telling him she’s a psychiatrist and attempting to psychoanalyze him. And in the most preposterous leap of all, somehow Eleanor convinces Joe to head back to the family home with her and pretend he’s her boyfriend.
It’s hard to point at just one thing that’s going wrong here. It would be easy to argue that you don’t get to spend enough time with any one character to really care about them, but a little is too much with most of these people. You might also cite a lack of chemistry, or the uneven comedy. It’s definitely not the acting — this is an all-pro cast. Mostly it’s just the dragging, unnatural, square story that feels patched together and forced into a stubborn round hole.
The point of a good Christmas movie, especially the ones about imperfect people in all their dysfunction, is to see the hope and joy in the middle of all the chaos. “Love the Coopers” just drags on and on through the misery until it finally decides to cobble together a happy ending. It tells you a lot when an irreverent film like “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” leaves viewers with a better sense of the Christmas spirit.
“Love the Coopers” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some sexuality; running time: 116 minutes.