It’s axiomatic that the number of cute shots of dogs that a movie contains is inversely proportional to its quality. “Love the Coopers” features a ton of them, including endless sequences spotlighting Rags, the family mutt that turns out to be narrating the picture (in a voice provided by Steve Martin) and—as such—refers to himself in the third person. So it’s bound to be terrible, and in fact is—a real dog, so to speak.
The movie, directed by Jessie Nelson from a script by Steven Rogers, is the latest example of what has become a horrible Hollywood end-of-year tradition—the insufferable “home for the holidays” ensemble piece. In this case the clan is the Coopers, with the house of Sam (John Goodman) and Charlotte (Diane Keaton) serving as the locus to which all are coming for Christmas Eve dinner. What the others don’t know is that Sam and Charlotte are in the middle of a marital crisis, intending to separate as the result of a disagreement over a long-delayed trip to Africa that’s a symptom of their frayed relationship, but only after one final Christmas celebration.
The guests include Bucky (Alan Arkin), the widowed father of Charlotte, and her long-antagonistic younger sister Emma (Marisa Tomei), a life coach, along with addled, elderly Aunt Fishy (June Squibb) and Sam and Charlotte’s children Hank (Ed Helms) and Eleanor (Olivia Wilde). Hank’s divorced, but his ex-wife (Alex Borstein) attends, along with their children Charlie (Timothee Chalamet), Bo (Maxwell Simkins) and Madison (Blake Baumgartner). And that’s not the entire list. Eleanor brings along a soldier, Joe (Jake Lacy), whom she’s just met at the airport, to pretend to be her boyfriend, while Ruby (Amanda Seyfried), the sweet waitress at the local diner where Bucky’s been eating for years, comes along as well, after the old man has profusely apologized for berating her when he finds out she’s planning to leave town without telling him.
There are further problems in the background, of course. Emma arrives late, having endured a ride in a police car after she’s been picked up for shoplifting; during the journey, she talks to the cop (Anthony Mackie) and both reveal their personal demons. Charlie is infatuated with a young girl who works at the mall, and has actually screwed up the courage to talk to her, though their encounter does not end entirely happily. Hank has lost his job as a department store photographer and is desperately seeking another. Eleanor needs a pseudo-boyfriend to keep her parents from learning that she’s involved with a married man. And darling little Madison has picked up an embarrassing phrase that she endlessly repeats. As for the meal, it naturally gets strained at times, but even worse, during it one reveler falls ill—necessitating a trip to the hospital, where a distinctly implausible coincidence concerning Eleanor’s love life pops up.
That’s just the last straw in a screenplay filled with characters who are more irritating than likable and dialogue that sounds as though it had been lifted from a bad network dramedy; in fact, it’s difficult to point to a single line you can image a real human being (or even Rags) ever saying. To make matters still worse, there are lots of annoying flashbacks and dream sequences that end with characters exploding in puffs of what’s presumably some sort of pixie dust. Despite the inevitable happy ending in which people pair off with each other and dance with newfound joy, the overall effect is as depressing as family reunions so often are in real life.
That naturally takes a toll on the cast, none of whom are at their best. Keaton does what’s become her familiar routine of frazzled impatience, and Goodman looks and sounds tired. (A sequence, complete with flashback, recalling their sixties radical days is embarrassing.) Helms offers his usual sad sack shtick, while Tomei tries for poignancy and comes up short. Wilde has the most thankless role as supposedly sharp-tongued Eleanor, but Arkin, Seyfried, Squibb and Lacy come off reasonably well. The worst performance of all, however, is young Chalamet’s. He might be a pleasant enough young man, but his jerky contortions and constant mugging here are extraordinarily annoying. On the positive side, the movie is visually attractive—as these holiday-themed misfires often are. Beth A. Rubino’s production design, Gregory A. Weimenskirch’s art direction and Paul Cheponis’ set decoration are all colorful, and Elliot Davis’ cinematography gives all the images a glossy finish.
But all their hard work is for naught, given the quality of the material they’re trying to make look good. In their first scene together Eleanor describes herself to Joe as a sort-of-writer, a playwright none of whose efforts have ever been produced. A pity Rogers’ script didn’t suffer a similar fate.