A lot of talented actors must really want to make a Christmas movie. Or anyway, the gamble that one of their films might become a perennial seasonal attraction on cable channels is the most expedient explanation for how Diane Keaton, John Goodman, Marisa Tomei, Amanda Seyfried, Anthony Mackie, Olivia Wilde, Jake Lacy, Ed Helms, Alan Arkin, June Squibb, and the voice of Steve Martin all find themselves in Love The Coopers, a movie that should be punctuated like a Christmas card sign-off but instead, losing a comma, becomes an off-putting directive. How Robert De Niro didn’t make it to this set is a mystery for the ages.
The movie takes place on Christmas Eve, as Charlotte (Keaton) and Sam (Goodman) prepare one final, perfect Christmas for their family. The finality isn’t due to illness (though viewers would not be wrong to suspect this, given that some of these filmmakers had a hand in both The Family Stone and Stepmom), but the looming possibility that Charlotte and Sam will divorce, an option they’re hiding from the rest of the family. Martin narrates introductions to all of the family members and related folks, offering background information in second-rate but earnest prose reminiscent of a mainstream novel. Daughter Eleanor (Wilde) kills time in an airport, where she meets Joe (Lacy) and confesses her trepidation over disappointing her parents; recently divorced son Hank (Helms) looks for work and worries about his kids; Charlotte’s father (Arkin) chats with a waitress (Seyfried) at his favorite diner; and Charlotte’s little sister (Tomei) has a run-in with a stoic cop (Mackie).
It’s all pretty ambitious for this type of movie—that is, the type of movie premised on the notion of puncturing the oppressive good cheer of the holidays with irreverent sentiments that better show off all the complex messiness of real life, and wind up feeling suspiciously like old-fashioned sap. Love The Coopers goes about this secret-sentiment business less cynically than some (its hijinks-heavy trailer is somewhat misleading), focusing on the characters’ collective, bittersweet memories of past holiday experiences, and driven by Martin’s head-hopping narrator. Martin’s voiceover narration for his own L.A. Story and Shopgirl does manage to make his material here sound more wry and wise than it really is. As a comedy-drama, Coopers is almost completely without laughs, which maims its ability to find the right balance of pathos and farce. But like the similarly unfunny and semi-heartfelt Keaton vehicle Because I Said So—co-written by director Jessie Nelson—it maintains a certain sincerity.
How the filmmakers go about reaching for this sincerity and ambition, however, maintains a certain technical incompetence. Most of the first 75 of the movie’s 105 minutes consists of two-person dialogue scenes: Goodman and Keaton; Wilde and Lacy; Seyfried and Arkin; and so on. They’re simple set-ups, and Nelson gooses most of them with awkward, unnecessary flourishes. The camera bobs, weaves, and goes in close, over-covering most of the conversations into distracting hashes. In a big scene between Seyfried and Arkin, Nelson cuts between the two, and while Arkin is shot from slightly below, looking slightly to the side at his scene partner, Seyfried’s half of the conversation is shot with her looking almost straight into the camera. That oddball trick, with no discernible meaning, is repeated later in a scene with Wilde and Lacy, who at least get to share the frame a few times during their offbeat courtship, before the movie cuts in and muffles their burgeoning romance with antsy shot choices.
The Wilde/Lacy storyline still has its charms, even though it’s simultaneously overwritten (in its wordy explications) and underwritten (to better contrast with Wilde, Lacy’s character is identified as a Republican while stating absolutely no beliefs beyond a jokey disbelief in evolution); at least it offers the simple pleasure of watching two attractive people fall in love. The rest of the cast has less luck in their bids to create a believable family unit, much less holiday immortality. There are small details to appreciate, like the soundtrack that uses several non-holiday Bob Dylan tunes and opens the movie with “White Winter Hymnal” by Fleet Foxes rather than a holiday standard. Yet despite her ear for non-traditional Christmas tunes, Nelson can’t steer clear of cutesy kids who pronounce words with a soft “r,” dog reaction shots (a staple of Keaton’s work these days), and the warm sentiment that melts everything together into a soppy mess by the wrap-up. In fact, an insane, impossible, yet weirdly predictable final twist allows Love The Coopers to stake a claim not as a holiday classic, but as the ultimate dog reaction shot in feature-length form.