“Love the Coopers” Movie Review


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     Whether it be a movie about a family gathering at Christmas or any other time of the year for that matter, it becomes the responsibility of the filmmakers to show us why we should care about the characters on screen.  What makes their situation, both collectively and individually, special enough to merit a story told by way of a feature film?  When it comes to drama within a family, screenwriter Steven Rogers once told a story of a terminally ill woman who had to deal with both her illness and the new, younger woman in her ex-husband’s life in the acclaimed tear jerker “Stepmom”.  Some 17 years later, Rogers is back with “Love the Coopers”, a family drama tale centered around the various members of a family and their current life situations in the hours before their annual Christmas dinner together.  Jessie Nelson, who co-wrote “Stepmom” with Rogers and also directed Sean Penn to an Oscar nomination in “I Am Sam”, takes on the directing chores for the film, apparently struggling as to whether or not she should remain with her roots and focus on the seriousness of the story, or simply revert to the kind of antics people loved in films like “Christmas Vacation”.  The fact this decision was never made means “Love the Coopers” drifts back and forth between dealing with overly dramatized family issues and wannabe Farrelly Brothers style sight gags.  All of which prove to be the film’s undoing.

     We know each of these characters will eventually make it to Charlotte (Diane Keaton) and Sam (John Goodman) Cooper’s home for dinner on Christmas Eve, but there is quite a bit going with all of them that dampens the Christmas spirit and makes you wonder why any of them get together in the first place.  Ultimately, watching “Love the Coopers” is more akin to experiencing a film like “August: Osage County” or “This Is Where I Leave You” than a traditional Christmas themed story like “Four Christmases” or “Christmas with the Kranks”.  Problem is, the marketing is obviously skewed to toward the latter, likely setting up many moviegoers to be disappointed if they go in expecting a funny, feel good family Christmas story.  Fact is, everyone on screen has serious issues they are dealing with and it all starts at the top and works its way down.

     Charlotte and Sam have been married for 40 years, but seem to be at the end of the road.  Though they are planning on getting through the holidays for the sake of everyone else, Sam is preparing to move out, as the two have grown apart and seemingly lost what ever it was that kept them together all these years.  Their two children, Hank (Ed Helms) and Eleanor (Olivia Wilde), are both dealing with significant and similar issues of their own.  Hank is recently divorced and has also lost his job as a family photo photographer at a department store.  He and his ex-wife, Angie (Alex Borstein), have three children of their own, each with a set of cliched problems attributed to their respective ages.  Perhaps the best storyline in the film is that of Eleanor’s.  While making her way through the airport, en route to her parent’s home, she meets a young Army Private named Joe (Jake Lacy), who is on his way home for Christmas before being deployed overseas.  Just a side note on that, I noticed throughout the many scenes involving Joe that his mosquito wings (Private E-2 Army Rank Insignia) were upside down in some scenes and then right side up in others.  Was this a goof? Or was it done purposely?  How did the dozens of people on set not notice?

     The Eleanor and Joe storyline is by far the most interesting and well written.  Eleanor is a free spirit who begins conversations with her sharp and pointed political beliefs that lean far to the left.  When she meets Joe, who is in uniform, she makes the assumption that his political beliefs lean to the right (they do) and immediately downgrades and trivializes everything from war to the environment.  Going as far to say she would never date someone like him simply because he is a Republican.  Of course this is Olivia Wilde, who has an uncanny ability as an actress to make her characters really likable and down to earth.  It’s no surprise Joe slowly begins to fall for her and is delighted when she invites him to her family’s dinner.  The one catch being he has to pose as Eleanor’s boyfriend so as to avoid the annual talk from her mother about being single and having no direction in her life.  To put it mildly, Eleanor has serious mommy issues.  I would’ve been fine to see more of these two, but unfortunately the filmmakers feel the need to drag us along through the exploits of several other poorly written and unnecessary characters.  Chief among them is a completely wasted Marisa Tomei, who plays Charlotte’s younger and overly jealous sister Emma.

     We end up sitting through an oddly long drive from a Pittsburg mall, where Emma is caught shoplifting, to jail in the back of a police car being driven by a cop (Anthony Mackie) who has issues of his own and chooses to share them with Emma for some unknown reason.  Nelson comes back to this scene a half dozen or so times during the first hour, all the while not explaining why it would take so long to get where they’re going (a winter traffic jam maybe?) and not realizing the $68 piece of jewelry Emma attempted to steal wouldn’t warrant an arrest anyway.  There is also a cringeworthy story involving Charlotte’s father, Bucky (Alan Arkin), who apparently goes to a neighborhood coffeeshop twice a day everyday to visit a waitress named Ruby (Amanda Seyfried) who is one third his age.  To say this nearly unexplainable relationship takes a strange turn would be an understatement.  Of course Ruby ends up at the Cooper’s dinner as well, making an already uncomfortable situation even more so.

     Aside from the family drama, the filmmakers consistently inject each scene with the typical toilet humor present in some many of these types of films, most of which either involves the children or June Squibb’s Aunt Fishy.  Virtually none of this is funny, leaving only the relationships between the characters to chew on and there isn’t really anything tasty enough on that front to satisfy the inevitable Christmas craving that got you to watch in the first place.  The boat load of characters we are forced to contend with might have been better suited if the Cooper’s were presented in a television series, but in a feature film clocking in at less than two hours, the proceedings feel as bloated as you do after eating the food associated with this annual tradition. By the time the narrator of the film is revealed, we are so full from endless backstories, squabbles, and predictable reconciliations that the originality of his identity falls completely flat.  And that’s the main problem.  “Love the Coopers” never really demonstrates why we should care in the first place.  GRADE: C-