Diane Keaton, John Goodman, Olivia Wilde and Amanda Seyfried headline Jessie Nelson’s ensemble comedy about a troubled family getting together for Christmas
Now that awards season is upon us, allow me to suggest a new category: Most Extravagantly Wasted Cast.
And the winner is … Love the Coopers, which squanders the likes of Diane Keaton, John Goodman, Marisa Tomei, Alan Arkin, Olivia Wilde, June Squibb, Amanda Seyfried and Anthony Mackie in a Christmas comedy of numbing tedium and tackiness.
Some entries in the largely undistinguished dysfunctional-family-holiday-film subgenre — The Family Stone (also with Keaton) and Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays, to name two — are watchable despite their forced zaniness and predictable emotional beats; the spectacle of attractive stars packed into the frame to act out universal problems (meddling parents, sibling rivalries, unfulfilled romantic and professional lives) has its charms and comforts. But occasionally one of these movies comes along and, in its total lack of wit and sincerity, makes you feel like the ultimate Scrooge. Love the Coopers, directed by Jessie Nelson (Corrina, Corrina; I Am Sam), is such a movie.
Red flags abound from the beginning, as an off-screen narrator (Steve Martin) bombards us with cloyingly phrased background info on various members of the titular clan. Keaton (in full flibbertigibbet mode) and Goodman (looking half-awake) are Charlotte and Sam, a 60ish Pittsburgh couple on the verge of separation but determined to have one last Christmas with their kids and grandkids. The two spend most of the film bickering over some trip they never took for some reason. Pardon the lack of specifics; it may be the dullest conjugal dispute ever committed to screen.
Ed Helms (Vacation) plays their divorced and recently unemployed son Hank, who has a few kids, including a sullen teenage boy (Timothee Chalamet) and a mischievous 5-year-old girl (Blake Baumgartner). The former pursues a classmate and ends up kissing her, repeatedly, with far too much slobbery tongue; the latter has a vexing habit of exclaiming “You’re such a dick!” at inopportune times. Neither of these running jokes is remotely funny.
Wilde plays Charlotte and Sam’s daughter, Eleanor, who’s beautiful, smart and opinionated; in other words — given the type of movie this is — she’s single. While waiting for her flight home, Eleanor meets Joe (Jake Lacy of HBO’s Girls), a boyishly handsome uniformed soldier whose toothy smile and square jaw help her get past the fact that he’s a Republican. Tired of her mother’s nagging her to date more, Eleanor recruits Joe to accompany her to Christmas dinner and pretend to be her beau.
Though it features one of Love the Coopers’ cringiest lines (when Joe asks Eleanor if she believes in God, she replies: “I believe in the sound of Nina Simone’s voice”), Wilde’s is the only storyline that holds your interest. That’s probably because, as she proved in Joe Swanberg’s terrific Drinking Buddies, the actress is a formidable onscreen flirt (all side-eye sass and veiled longing) and here brings much-needed vinegar to insipid material. The scenes of Eleanor and Joe also stand out as the only ones grounded in any sense of contemporary reality; she ribs him about climate change, gun control and religion, though of course their clashing values are no match for the filmmakers’ need to see Eleanor settle down.
Meanwhile, Tomei plays Emma, Charlotte’s sister (don’t even try doing the math) and easily the film’s least charitable creation. Childless, husband-less, needy and passive-aggressive, Emma is also a shoplifter, and ends up in the back of a police car driven by a closeted cop (Mackie, saddled with a semi-insulting character). She’s envious of Charlotte’s seemingly perfect suburban existence, but learns a valuable life lesson, which, as far as I could tell, had something to do with the importance of buying expensive gifts for the people you love. Tomei is a superb actress and, I trust, will soon move on to better things.
Finally, there’s Arkin as Charlotte and Emma’s ailing father Bucky, who spends his days at a diner, bonding with one of the waitresses (a miscast Seyfried). His feelings for her are an uncomfortable mix of paternal and lecherous, and the less said about their ill-conceived scenes together, the better.
Nelson and screenwriter Steven Rogers (P.S. I Love You) shuffle between these characters for an hour or so, before everyone converges on the homestead for the big meal and attendant chaos. Things get marginally more entertaining at this point — partly because June Squibb is on hand as Sam’s aunt, and when all else fails, an elderly person’s flatulence and memory lapses are always good for an easy giggle.
Love the Coopers certainly looks sleek enough (thanks to seasoned DP Eliot Davis), and Nelson, trying hard to avoid the visual flatness of so many studio comedies, directs with a rather aggressive touch. The result is a film cluttered with flashbacks, flourishes of whimsy, jittery close-ups used to signpost emotionally significant moments, split-screen, clips from black-and-white classics (a flash of George Cukor’s Born Yesterday serves as an unintentionally sadistic reminder that, yes, comedies can be funny), music ranging from holiday standards to Bob Dylan, and cutesy character tics (example: Hank snorts when he laughs). But none of those things can conceal the creative void at the movie’s heart or distract from its failure to make us feel anything for the stick figures onscreen.
One scene toward the end, in which Tomei and Keaton hash out their differences, has a slightly sharper edge and a hint of something resembling real human emotion, and there’s a final twist concerning the narrator’s identity that earns a grudging smile. Still, by then, loving the Coopers will be out of the question; leaving them will be the priority.