For those who celebrate it, Christmas is primarily a ritualistic annual event steeped in the comforts of echoed traditions, comforts that carry at least those in the northern hemisphere through the darkest time of the year. In the case of Diane Keaton, executive producer for the new holiday dramedy Love the Coopers, the urge to circle back to the well and replay what had already been done before proved insurmountable. One decade ago, she played the matriarch in the Christmastide saga The Family Stone, a perfectly serviceable middlebrow seasonal offering that staked out the happy medium between Home for the Holidays and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Now, in full yuletide capitulation, Keaton once again presumes the mantle of the most forcibly happiest time of the year, and resistance is ill-advised. (The lack of a comma splice means the title of the film isn’t a salutation, but a command.)
Charlotte (Keaton) and Sam (John Goodman) have fallen out of love and are on the verge of separation, mutually recognizing that neither are the same person they originally married, though Love the Coopers goes to no great pains to define who they are currently. Nevertheless, they’re ready to deck the halls with détente in order to give their children one last holiday gathering free from the awkwardness of a broken home.
Meanwhile, all of their kin and in-laws are picking up the slack for domestic discomfort just fine. Hank (Ed Helms) and Angie (Alex Borstein) are themselves separating. Emma (Marisa Tomei) is a kleptomaniac who feels no connection with her older sister Charlotte’s sizable clan, but also can nuzzle up to a closeted gay cop and psychoanalyze his history of repression. Buck (Alan Arkin) pushes classic movies on his favorite greasy spoon waitress, Ruby (Amanda Seyfried), in hopes of a strictly platonic love affair. And the family dog keeps scarfing down the mashed potatoes.
Sloppy and haphazard where it should be calculatedly chaotic, Meet the Coopers can’t ever seem to settle on an appropriate tone. Imagine a Christmas tree covered not only in tinsel and lights and silver bulbs, but also snow globes and perfume samples and beef jerky and vials of virgin tears. The script, which makes the descendants of Paul Haggis’s Crash look carefully mapped in comparison, stacks all possible decks against the characters, presumably so their belated happy ending will seem satisfactorily hard-earned. But director Jessie Nelson can’t seem to decide whether to treat the material with earnestness or irony; in isolated moments the movie channels The Royal Tenenbaums, and others Amélie, as when the narrator’s flights of fancy gets taken at face value and depicted through leftfield CGI effects.
A much better movie could’ve been made by focusing strictly on Olivia Wilde’s character, a woman who, rather than face her relatives by her lonely self, recruits a soon-deploying soldier she meets at an airport bar to trick them into thinking she has a decent boyfriend, instead of the married man she’s actually dating. While her character’s baldly self-destructive tendencies are both too broad and too easy as presented, her story alone touches on some of the universal anxieties adult children experience as they try to sell their families the least offensive versions of themselves. Embellishing her tale could have made for a Christmas movie you could keep with you throughout the year, instead of just another sodden log of fruitcake.