The star-studded home for the holidays Christmas movie has become as much a yearly tradition as caroling, hot cider and sledding in freshly packed snow. This year's installment, Love the Coopers, promises to deliver on the cinematic cheer, but is more of an airing of grievances than a celebration. Centering on the mishaps and misadventures of the large Cooper clan on Christmas Eve, the family has to dredge up all of their demons in order to truly appreciate family.
We are introduced to the Coopers via an omnipresent narrator, a soul who seems to know them better than they do, detailing their inner monologues. There's the matriarch and patriarch, Charlotte (Diane Keaton) and Sam (John Goodman), mourning their lost spark, and their son Hank (Ed Helms) divorcing and unemployed. We're also introduced to their daughter Eleanor (Olivia Wilde), lingering at the airport bar, trying to prolong returning home to her family.
There are also a few loose ends that we don't know are connected right away. Emma (Marisa Tomei) gets caught shoplifting a gift and bonds with her arresting officer (Anthony Mackie), claiming to be a psychiatrist. Bucky (Alan Arkin) has to bid farewell to his favorite diner waitress on her last day, the beautiful, sad Ruby (Amanda Seyfried). Slowly the threads are pulled together and the family gathers around a beautiful table to eat, and fight.
Fight they do. Among the picturesque white Christmas tableau, Love the Coopers is a dark and cynical film, with familial spats that are too real to be comfortable. Charlotte squabbles with her husband, her daughter and sister, and while Keaton's inimitable shrill, frazzled character is perfect for the role, she's almost hard to watch. These characters are all either sad and broken, or crazy, or both. As they misbehave and lash out, it's undeniably relatable, but it doesn't quite inspire the warm fuzzies.
Stylistically, the film piles on the Christmas trappings (the caroling is relentless), but is shot in a dim, dark style that shows how haggard and sad the Coopers are. There's also the choice made to visualize the memories and ghosts that haunt their present — lost loved ones, youth and happiness, relationships. With the voice over, multiple story lines, and the flashbacks, it never quite hits a consistent stride.
The bright spot in the film is the chemistry between Wilde as Eleanor and Jake Lacy as Joe, a soldier she connects with in the airport. She convinces him to pose as her boyfriend to meet the parents, and on this crazy whim, they start to fall for each other. The connection between them is electric. Wilde is a reckless playwright with self-destructive romantic tendencies, and Lacy is a stoic, heroic conservative. Lacy has an ability to elevate any material he's in — a stealthy scene stealer. Their storyline could have made a great, and nuanced little holiday film. Alas, Love the Coopers focuses too much on interfamily drama to salvage the real Christmas spirit.