From the opening credits sequence, Love the Coopers feels like classic studio holiday schmaltz. Santa Clauses ride around town, dogs dressed in Hanukkah and Christmas garb embrace, and families take pictures for greeting cards. The Fleet Foxes’ “White Winter Hymnal” scores the montage, completing an idyllic portrait of dull but harmless seasonal cheer.
The film appears to be heading towards a whitewashed but benign universe as the principal characters get introduced, suggesting a basic story structure warm and familiar enough to be a Christmas hearth. Charlotte (Diane Keaton) and Sam (John Goodman) Cooper plan a Christmas dinner for their dispersed family, all while their marriage disintegrates due in part to the couple’s age. Their passion has waned as the years have gone by, leading to constant argument over song lyrics, grocery shopping, and seemingly everything else.
Meanwhile, life for the other Coopers doesn’t appear to be going much better. Charlotte’s sister, Emma (Marisa Tomei), gets caught attempting to shoplift jewelry, leading to her being forced to sit in a police car with a steely security guard (Anthony Mackie). Hank (Ed Helms), Charlotte and Sam’s son, is divorced and struggling to find work after losing his job as a department store photographer, and he can’t find much reason for hope. Eleanor (Olivia Wilde) has more optimism thanks to Joe (Jake Lacy), a man she meets at the airport while killing time until she has to be at her parents’ house for dinner, even if his conservative politics and refusal to believe in evolution give her doubt. Charlotte’s father, Bucky (Alan Arkin), loves the young waitress Ruby (Amanda Seyfried), but she’s soon to be leaving town for new adventures. Least romantically jaded of all is Hank’s son, Charlie (Timothée Chalamet), who has the opposite problem, being too inexperienced in love to tell his crush (Molly Gordon) of his feelings for her.
Confused yet? So is the film, apparently, as the various vignettes cut too rapidly between one another for any of them to build momentum. Instead of giving the characters enough time to present their personalities or motivations with any sort of depth, writer Steven Rogers insists on providing a constant panoramic view of the Coopers, losing the viewer’s interest in any of them in the process. Whenever a story seems to be building a dramatic arc, Rogers moves on, rendering none of the characters particularly cohesive or memorable. The bizarre age differences between the cast members don’t help, with Alan Arkin being only twelve years older than his supposed daughter, and her being eighteen years older than her supposed sister.
Of course, the most bizarre age difference of all is written into the script: Ruby falling for Bucky despite him being over fifty years her senior. While Rogers appears to be trying to write a sweet tale of love defying boundaries, the relationship feels like a disturbing male fantasy, ruining the credibility of both characters in the process. Bucky comes off as a sad old man for thinking that the youthful Ruby would be romantically interested in him, and she seems even sadder for reciprocating his feelings. Beyond being corny, the relationship severs any emotional stakes the viewer might be able to have in either character.
In addition to the corniness, Love the Coopers has a strong dark side which continually rears its ugly head. Hank’s unemployment and desire to work in retail gets played for laughs, as do alcoholism, violence against children, and adultery. Besides being tasteless, these jokes make for an awkward contrast with the holiday cheer, ruining any ability the film might otherwise have to tug on holiday heartstrings. In spite of the title, Love the Coopers is continuously marked by an unappealing hatred.
To make matters even worse, director Jessie Nelson shoots the film like a music video, providing further discordance which simply doesn’t fit the subject matter. Rapid cuts and shaky hand-held shots pervade throughout the running time, making for a discomforting effect which does Rogers’ already shoddy script no service. Nelson appears to be trying to liven up the bland material, but her efforts feel misplaced and in need of a better film.
Instead, they go to the disastrous Love the Coopers, creating an awkward mismatch which the ungainliness of the script can’t nearly hope to rectify. Even the all-star cast members don’t seem to know what to do with themselves, failing to bring some cohesion or spark to the disjointed material. Seemingly aimed to be a holiday film fun for the whole family, Love the Coopers ends up as a Christmas mess.