Fittingly given that its title sounds like a demand, “Love the Coopers” peddles holiday sorrow, cheer and uplift with off-putting insistence. Director Jessie Nelson’s dramedy follows a familiar family-reunion template in detailing the Yuletide get-together of the Coopers, a clan fracturing under the weight of divorces, unemployment, unrealized dreams and loneliness — as well as past joys that all its members desperately want to reclaim. Decked out in the usual tinsel-and-mistletoe trappings, the film lurches awkwardly between gloominess and giddiness, never hitting the boisterously bittersweet groove it seeks. Failing to carve out an identity distinct from its many subgenre predecessors, this slushy feel-good saga faces a stormy theatrical forecast at best.
Ten years after “The Family Stone,” Diane Keaton again takes the lead of a contrived getting-the-relatives-back-together film that eventually employs the threat of tragedy as a device for familial reconciliation. Before “Love the Coopers” ventures down that misbegotten path, however, it first delineates the problems of its various interconnected players. Front and center are Charlotte (Keaton) and Sam (John Goodman), who, after 40 years of marriage, still dress in matching flannel outfits (hers, in typical Keaton fashion, buttoned to the top). Identical style choices aside, however, they’ve grown so far apart that they’ve agreed to separate — a decision driven by Charlotte’s interest in fixating on her kids at the expense of Sam’s long-coveted trip to Africa. Their estrangement is also related to the fact that, years earlier, Charlotte and Sam lost a young child, though it’s indicative of Steven Rogers’ scattershot and superficial script that said catastrophe is mentioned only in passing, and seems a mere afterthought amid the more pressing crises at hand.
Those involve Charlotte and Sam’s son Hank (Ed Helms), a despondent mall photographer who can’t find a new job and is divorcing his wife Angie (Alex Borstein); and their daughter, Eleanor (Olivia Wilde), a failed playwright who’s carrying on an affair with a married man and would prefer to spend Christmas Eve anywhere other than at her parents’ house. At an airport bar, she meets Joe (Jake Lacy), a young soldier whose religious Republicanism becomes the immediate butt of liberal Eleanor’s cringe-worthy jokes, but whose earnest demeanor and big smile quickly prove irresistible. In no time, Eleanor is introducing Joe to her own god (Nina Simone) and convincing him — since a blizzard has grounded his deployment flight — to come home with her and pose as her boyfriend.
Meanwhile, Charlotte’s sister Emma (Marisa Tomei) — who, ridiculously, is meant to be only a few years Charlotte’s junior, despite the actresses’ 19-year age difference — is arrested for trying to shoplift a brooch in her mouth. In the back of the squad car of police officer Williams (Anthony Mackie), she sets about giving the “robotic” cop some therapist-y advice, which causes Williams, in one of the film’s innumerable implausible developments, to open up about his homosexuality and the disapproving mother who drove him to live life in the closet. Williams is simply a mechanism designed to help Emma learn that she’s not alone, and moreover, that she can turn herself into the person she’s always wanted to be. That makes him about as one-dimensional as the memory-addled Aunt Fishy (June Squibb), who orbits the Coopers like a comic-relief clown programmed only to make funny faces at the dog and, in the story’s nadir, to expel a rancid fart during Christmas dinner grace.
If that weren’t enough, Charlotte and Emma’s father, Bucky (Alan Arkin), is heartbroken when he learns that his favorite diner waitress, Ruby (Amanda Seyfried) — with whom he shares a platonic quasi-romantic relationship — is intent on skipping town. Such news compels Bucky and Ruby to rail at each other with the same type of blunt-force honesty that characterizes Charlotte and Sam’s contentious rapport. Their no-holds-barred candor soon comes to typify just about every utterance heard in “Love the Coopers,” including the constant narration provided by the family dog, Rags (voiced by Steve Martin), which is so Hallmark-card corny that it sabotages any sense of emotional authenticity or maturity.
An overstuffed turkey about shedding lies and embracing who you are and how you feel, Nelson’s film courts cheap nostalgic pathos via clips from “City Lights” and “Born Yesterday.” It also intersperses its action with brief flashbacks to memories — of carefree excitement, of blissful togetherness, of departed loved ones — that continue to haunt these characters. When coupled with Charlotte and Sam’s ongoing discussion-cum-argument over how they drifted apart, “Love the Coopers” occasionally appears on the verge of ditching its more cloying tendencies and transforming into a thoughtful meditation on how the holidays serve as a time to reflect on and reconnect with family, love and those cherished people and moments (big and small) that once brought such happiness.
Unfortunately, Rogers’ tale is far less concerned with such issues than with tidily pairing off its forlorn single characters and reuniting its betrothed ones — all of which comes about during a climax set at a hospital that’s shameless in its heartstring tugging. In the process of advancing plot threads to their telegraphed conclusions, the film strands its actors with little to do but bicker, pout, grin and swoon with metronomic predictability. Undermined by an unfocused story that can barely even tell us about these individuals’ deep-seated hang-ups, much less adequately dramatize them, Keaton, Goodman, Helms, Wilde, Arkin, Seyfried, Tomei and Mackie merely coast by on charisma. Similarly functional, Elliot Davis’ sweeping camerawork around twinkling Christmas-decorated sets fails to energize the hectic proceedings, while the soundtrack, mixing Bob Dylan and Sting tunes with traditional seasonal classics, would be right at home at a Starbucks.