Run time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Stars: Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Diane Keaton
Director: Jessie Nelson
It's easy to see what kind of film Love the Coopers wants to be. As its all-star cast enacts the story of a large family facing a number of crises on Christmas Eve, the film bears aspirational echoes of Love Actually, Parenthood and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.
Yet those echoes are faint. Though freighted with a sleighload of good intentions, Love the Coopers never engages its audience with believable characters or relatable conflicts. Only occasionally does a moment ring true, thanks largely to talented actors subduing a balky script like parents wrestling a petulant kid onto Santa's lap.
Problem number one is the generational questions raised by the film's casting choices. The patriarch of the Coopers is a wise and witty grandfather (Alan Arkin). His two daughters, Charlotte (Diane Keaton) and Emma (Marisa Tomei), don't get along. Could it be because one was apparently born at the end of World War II and the other during the Johnson administration? Their brother, Hank (Ed Helms), is a good 30 years younger than his older sister, implying that the family's now-deceased mother may have had her maternity bills paid by Medicare.
Charlotte is married to a lovable bear of a man named Sam (John Goodman). Though Sam loves Charlotte to bits, he's planning to leave her because she won't accompany him on a trip to Africa. Emma, meanwhile, has just been arrested for shoplifting a brooch she hid in her mouth (ick). And even though Hank and his wife are divorced, he fears telling her he's lost his job as a department store portrait photographer.
Also heading home for the holidays is Charlotte and Sam's daughter, Eleanor (Olivia Wilde), who dreads the "anyone-special-in-your-life?" grilling she knows awaits her. On arrival at her hometown airport she encounters a soldier (Jake Lacy) stranded by the weather, so Eleanor talks him into posing as her beau. On meeting her parents, however, he goes above and beyond the call of duty, inexplicably blurting out, "We're engaged!"
Add in younger kids with bullying and girlfriend issues, and Love the Coopers starts to smell like a turkey stuffed with pages from Us Weekly. Even the family pooch has a subplot, and — a sure sign of a dog of a movie — we care more about its outcome than those of its masters.
It doesn't help that various Coopers say and do things no thinking human ever would. Example: In the squad car en route to the station after her shoplifting arrest — a journey that feels like six hours — Emma engages her arresting officer (stoic Hurt Locker costar Anthony Mackie) in an impromptu therapy session; before long, Officer Williams has revealed he is gay and has regressed to his 8-year-old self. Yeah, that happens all the time. And let's not even broach the bit where "happily ever after" may mean Hank finds love with the young waitress (Amanda Seyfried) who clearly has a crush on his father (double-ick).
Can anything keep Love the Coopers from imploding? Luckily, Keaton and Goodman make an appealing couple, and it's downright wonderful to see Goodman sink his teeth into a lead role, rather than the brief (but delightful) cameos to which we've grown accustomed. Arkin is always a joy, even when he's channeling the Worldly Grandpa for the umpteenth time.
In a living-room sing-along near the end, Love the Coopers achieves actual spontaneity: Arkin strums a ukulele, Helms plays a guitar, and Keaton and Goodman raise their voices in a pleasingly flawed harmony that tells you these two have spent a lifetime making sweet music through the ups and downs of a long marriage.
It's a warm, genuine scene. Given the rest of Love the Coopers, it's nothing short of a Christmas miracle.
Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.