I’ve never wanted to punch Steve Martin in the face, until watching Love the Coopers. Voice over is a dicey proposition in the best of times — it’s often an unnecessary rehash of the action you see on screen when the script is either too lazy or doesn’t think viewers are smart enough to understand what they see. And in the latest sprawling all-star holiday ensemble piece designed to capture the affections of Love Actually and Because I Said So devotees, though with little of the charm, the comic legend delivers the most egregious, tedious, infuriating voice over I’ve ever encountered.
Even the twist at the end, which is completely unearned and misplaced, and is sure to enrage a fair number of viewers, can’t save it. Anytime Martin chimes in, which is inevitably ill-timed — just when you think you’ve heard the last of his mild, tepid intrusion, boom, there he is again — it derails and distracts from the story. With this additions, watching Love the Coopers is like listening to a book on tape based on the novelization of an awkward family Christmas movie.
All of this isn’t to say that Love the Coopers is not without redeeming qualities, but they’re few and far between. Olivia Wilde once again proves that she’s one of the most talented actresses of her generation, bringing life, depth, and an infectious energy to what could have been a typical broken, wounded manic pixie dream girl role on paper.
The basic gist of Love the Coopers is that we’re all similarly fucked up beyond belief by our families, the ones who are supposed to love us the most. The eponymous Cooper family, a dysfunctional middle class clan, where even the ones who look like they have everything together are simply putting on appearances, illustrates this point. And when are all of these issues most likely to come to a head? When else, over the holidays when everyone gathers under one roof.
Charlotte (Diane Keaton) and Sam (John Goodman) are the matriarch and patriarch, the family core, the bright sun that the rest revolve around. Only things are not great in paradise, and they’re getting a divorce after 40 years, after staging one more perfect Christmas dinner for everyone. Ed Helms plays their son, Hank, a sad-sack divorcee with three kids, including a bland brooding teen (Timothee Chalamet) and a little girl who continually repeats the same mild curse over and over in a grating running gag. Marisa Tomei is Emma, Charlotte’s sister, always in her sibling’s shadow and resentful of that fact, who has a dalliance with shoplifting. Bucky (Adam Arkin) is the grandfather who is closer with a waitress at his favorite diner, Ruby (Amanda Seyfried), than his own kids, while Wilde is Eleanor, Charlotte and Sam’s baby, desperate to be seen as anything but.
The bulk of the movie shows these disparate threads heading towards an inevitable collision as the various family members travel to family dinner on Christmas Eve. Like with many similarly cluttered, muddled narratives like this, some of these stories are interesting and engaging, while others are very much not. Attempting to delay the inevitable passive aggressive motherly disapproval, Eleanor picks up a stranded soldier (Jake Lacey from Obvious Child) at an airport bar to stand in for the boyfriend she doesn’t have. Bucky and Ruby’s relationship is strange but uniquely adorable, though there’s a subtext that, while not ever examined with much fervor, is more than you get in the rest of the movie — they may be the two most interesting characters, though outside of the confines of this movie because there’s not much to grab onto here.
On the other side, Charlotte and Sam argue in an endless circle and continually have the same fight as they babysit their dementia patient Aunt Fishy (June Squibb), who exists only for forced comic relief — because old ladies farting and saying inappropriate things is funny, not sad, apparently. Emma’s encounter with a near mute, robotic cop (Anthony Mackie, who has almost nothing to do but reveal his deepest, darkest secret to a total stranger he’s in the process of arresting) is supposed to provide deep insight into both of their psyches and situations.
But like so much of Love the Coopers, all you get are too-easy platitudes and niceties. There may be decades and lifetimes worth of wounds and injuries between the various members of the Cooper clan, but in this world all you need is one night and you can tie up everything in a neat, tidy bow with a hug and a medley of holiday songs played on a ukulele.
This chaotic presentation plays hell with the up and down pace of the movie. At times you’re engaged and involved, and the action slips nicely along, while other times you can’t wait for a scene to end so you can move on and see what people you actually care about are up to.
Directed by Jessie Nelson (I Am Sam), Love the Coopers only tries anything visually interesting or unique when Wilde is on screen. Extreme close ups that crop out most of her face let the subtle change of expression around her eyes or at the corner of her mouth do more work than you get from the dialogue in the script by Steven Rogers (Hope Floats). This is a treatment that no one else in the movie receives, and though this is a cast full of big names and familiar faces, most of the time is spent with Keaton and Tomei yelling at each other, Ed Helms trying to act serious and not start mugging for the camera, vaguely uncomfortable teen make-out scenes, and kids doing things that I think are supposed to be cute. They’re not.
Maybe this is what you’re looking for in a holiday movie, something warm and fuzzy, full of bent and broken characters, but not too bent or broken, where everyone can hug it out by the end. But unless that’s specifically what you’re after, Love the Coopers is sappy and saccharine, and though there are a few shining moments, overall it is too hollow and muddled to be of much interest.