Few movies are as disappointing as one that raises your hopes only to let you down hard at the end. From the outside, Love the Coopers looks like yet another cutesy, confluentialist holiday comedy in the vein of New Year's Eve, but at the scale of a single family gathering for Christmas dinner. And if that's all it had been, I wouldn't be so frustrated. But it spends most of its running time seeming like a much smarter story -- almost set out to undermine the sort of movie it's pretending to be -- before taking a hard turn at the end into exactly what it appeared to be all along.
The Coopers are Sam and Charlotte (John Goodman and Diane Keaton), living in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, and the extended family that's coming together for the holiday. Charlotte's sister Emma (Marisa Tomei) will be there, and their father Bucky (Alan Arkin). Their daughter Eleanor (Olivia Wilde) is flying in; their son Hank (Ed Helms), his kids Charlie (Timothée Chalamet), Bo (Maxwell Simkins), and Madison (Blake Baumgartner), and his ex-wife Angie (Alex Borstein) all live in the area. Oh, and they're getting Sam's Aunt Fishy (June Squibb) out of the nursing home for the evening too.
Of course, everyone's got their problems. Or at least most of them do; Aunt Fishy and Madison are largely around for comic relief.
Bo is upset at his parents' divorce and wants to earn his brother's respect, while Charlie cares more about the girl he likes. The one-sided sibling rivalry is echoed in Emma's jealousy over Charlotte's life, which leads her to try -- and fail -- to steal a brooch from a local department store as a one-upping gift. This leads to her arrest by Officer Williams (Anthony Mackie) and a long, winding drive around the city during which she tries to provide him impromptu counseling.
Eleanor has the usual dissonant relationship with her mother, and hangs out in the airport bar rather than go directly home. It's here she meets Joe (Jake Lacy), a soldier headed to his own home for the holidays between boot camp and shipping out, but currently stuck with a cancelled flight. They hit it off in an opposites-attract sort of way, and she asks him to fake being her boyfriend to avoid her mother's disappointment.
Hank has lost not only his marriage, but his job as a department store photographer, though he hasn't told anyone. He's also nursing a crush on a young woman who came in with her family for a holiday card. She just happens to be Ruby (Amanda Seyfried), the waitress at the diner where Bucky eats regularly, mostly to see her. She's about to move out of town, desperate to make a change in her life, which comes as a real shock to Bucky.
The tone is all over the place, with some parts goofy and some parts almost somber. And yet, for much of the movie this plays as a kind of exaggeration of the mood swings common to this genre. Love the Coopers seems aware of what it is, and seems determined to deconstruct it. More than once we hear a comment about how arbitrary the holidays are, and how weird it is to focus all our expectations of joy and happiness on a single day. But that focus is key to a holiday movie like this; without it there's no reason to expect everyone's drama to come together in the same place and time.
Director Jessie Nelson finds plenty of creative expressions of fantasy as well. Over and over we see what the characters imagine, often replaced immediately by the more pedestrian reality. It highlights the artificial nature of these kinds of stories, showing us the "movie version" of the story before replacing it with something closer to real human relationships.
Until, that is, it doesn't. The last twenty minutes depart radically from this strategy, fully embracing the artificial movie version of events, aimed towards resolving everyone's problems neatly and providing everyone a happy ending. It's such a hard turn that I seriously wonder if Steven Rogers' original script continued in its more bittersweet direction, but the studio panicked after poor tests with audiences who wanted something more traditional. The tone and even the language suddenly change, and whatever thoughtfulness Love the Coopers had built up vanishes into the cold winter's night.
Rating: 2 out of 5