The basic narrative premise of Love the Coopers has been presented many times on film before. The family reunion has long been comedy fodder and this offering from director Jessie Nelson (I am Sam) joins an extensive list of films that have explored dysfunctional family dynamics through the premise of a family gathering at which secrets and resentments are invariably revealed. Whether the reason for the get-together is Thanksgiving (Home for the Holidays), a funeral (This is Where I Leave You) or Christmas (The Family Stone), such films generally follow a very similar trajectory. It is easy see the appeal of these types of productions for filmmakers (and those who bankroll them) because they afford an opportunity to gather a collection of high profile performers that span generations and thereby potentially appealing to a broad audience and they are also relatively inexpensive given that they are generally confined to a single location, although Love the Coopers does, to its credit, extend to settings beyond the obligatory dining room table.
Given the timing of its release, it is no surprise that Christmas serves as the justification for the Cooper family to convene in the home of parents Sam (John Goodman) and Charlotte (Diane Keaton), whose marriage of 40 years has reached a point of stasis. The first half (or more) of the film is spent introducing the various family members as they make their way to the Cooper home in snow-drenched suburban Pittsburgh; the quintessential white Christmas. There is grandad Bucky (Alan Arkin), son Hank (Ed Helms) and daughter Eleanor (Olivia Wilde), along with Charlotte’s sister Emma (Marisa Tomei), the mandatory crazy aunt (June Squib), a suitably eclectic triumvirate of grandchildren and a couple of ring-ins in the form of Ruby (Amanda Seyfried) and Joe (Jake Lacy). As is so often the case in such a scenario, everybody has something to hide (well the adults at least) even if their motivations for concealment might differ considerably.
Of these characters, it is Emma, Ruby and Eleanor who offer the most potential for the film to become something much more profound and powerful than a light-hearted comedy. Both Emma and Eleanor see themselves as disappointments in the eyes of the others, yet Nelson and writer Steven Rogers never really offer any insight into why this is the case, other than the fact that they are both still single. So desperate is Eleanor to avoid being pilloried, she convinces Joe, a young soldier she meets at an airport bar, to accompany her and pose as her boyfriend. Meanwhile, Ruby’s friendship with Bucky is ripe with a potential that is sadly never realised. We know that Ruby is possessed by a profound sadness (cue shot of wrist scars) from which her daily interactions with Bucky in the coffee shop in which she works seem to offer some relief, but we never find out anything more about her, which is very frustrating. It would have been great to see this cross-generational friendship explored in more depth, but the film barely skims the surface.
It is hard to care much about Hank’s plight as Helms (has he ever been good in anything?) gives an altogether bland performance as a somewhat pathetic character whose wife has, not surprisingly, forsaken the marriage no doubt in the hope of finding somebody more interesting, which shouldn’t be difficult. Helms aside, the cast, which also includes Anthony Mackie, are as good as can be expected with the material they have to work with and there are some effective, and affecting, moments along the way. If you can overlook the grammatically ambiguous title, the fact that every characterisation is superficial – in design rather than delivery – and a narration by the family dog Rags (voiced by Steve Martin) that is both unnecessary and intrusive, then you may well find a few chuckles in Love the Coopers. Certainly, the preview audience I saw it with laughed plenty and the interplay between Eleanor and Jake is a lot of fun, but ultimately this serves as another example of unrealised potential in which a lack of focus and originality prevent this from being anything more than merely mediocre.