Early on in Love the Coopers, Alan Arkin’s character explains why he hates Christmas, saying “It’s so much pressure, it’s like trying to schedule happiness.” That’s also a great explanation of why I hate these kinds of movies, the now standard, parallel storyline, ensemble fam-com revolving around a holiday™. It’s like they start with a feeling (heartwarming!) and try to work backwards. Which is kind of a gross way to tell a story: You don’t necessarily know what you want to say, only how you want to make me feel. I think that’s what people generally mean when they call a story “manipulative,” a story that’s a means to an end.
Before we get any further, I should probably say that if you’re the type of person who thinks you might be at all in the market for a film like Love the Coopers (based on the title, the poster, the trailers, etc.), you’ll probably like it. It seems like another fairly transparent attempt to recreate Love Actually. And in a lot of ways, it’s better than Love Actually. The cast (Diane Keaton and John Goodman as a married couple; Olivia Wilde and Jake Lacy as a pair of opposites who meet in an airport; Alan Arkin, Amanda Seyfried, Marisa Tomei, June Squibb) is wonderful, and practically every scene has at least one quotable truism. An example: Tomei’s character tells her sister, played by Keaton, “It’s not that I don’t like you, it’s just that I love you much more when you’re far away. It’s like we’re allergic to each other.”
It’s wittier than Love Actually, and probably better at disguising its sexist streak and inherent shallowness with charming actors and clever quips. At least one storyline is legitimately affecting. Also, there’s a big fluffy dog. All I’m saying is, it ain’t a terrible version of soulless schmaltz, far as that goes. Though perhaps a little heavy on the product placement (for Staples, Pringles, the McCafe, Southwest Airlines…).
That being said, I loathe Love Actually. So to me, Love the Coopers, from director Jessie Nelson (I Am Sam) and writer Steven Rogers (P.S. I Love You), feels like a group of talented people tasked with selling something detestable.
For instance: As soon as I saw the poster, with June Squibb holding a burning turkey, I knew they were going to turn her into a patronizing punchline. Sure enough, her character is a human whoopee cushion, a constant wild card (because of her high-larious dementia!), who has mostly lost her mind, but still has the wherewithal to fart at the dinner table and blame it on Fluffy Dog. It takes a special kind of asshole to take an Oscar-nominated actress and think, “I know what’ll be funny! If she’s all… old! And always forgetting stuff… because she’s so old!”
Thus, she eats gingerbread houses at the grocery story, tries to play Twister, farts, feeds the dog off her plate, misremembers names, and, crucially, keeps asking John Goodman’s character about a trip to Africa he was supposed to take 30 years ago. She’s in sharp contrast with the other grandparent, played by Alan Arkin, a regular customer at waitress Amanda Seyfried’s diner, who gets to dispense fatherly advice, fall in love, discuss classic movies in a distinguished bow tie, and generally be a font of wisdom, eloquence, and empathy. (And honestly, I could watch Alan Arkin paint a house.) This should give you some idea of Love the Cooper‘s gender imbalance. The men are all earnest, besotted, and likable; the women flawed, fickle, nitpicky, and incapable of seeing the bigger picture.
In addition to Wacky Grandma, there’s also the requisite Precocious Child, with his requisite five pounds of extraneous hair. Why why why do all child actors need 65% too much hair? This has been going on forever (Liar Liar and The Shining jump out as past examples), and like Jurassic World, whenever the little kid and his Vader-like hair helmet were onscreen I couldn’t focus on anything else. You might think this is a nitpicky point, but it speaks to a larger inability to think of characters as real humans, rather than greeting card tropes. The kids aren’t kids so much as cuteness delivery vectors (and in that icky, infantilized form of cuteness), just like their older counterparts. They’re not Bo and Aunt Fishy, individual humans, but Cute Kid and Wacky Grandma, grist for the schmaltz mill.
The most successful storyline, unquestionably, is the love story between Olivia Wilde’s character, a playwright who peaked early, and Jake Lacy, playing a soldier about to ship off whom she meets at the airport. She’s a big-city feminist who makes dismissive comments about Republicans, and he’s… basically the same thoughtful, Midwest Manmeat character he played so well in Obvious Child… who asks “If humans evolved from apes and monkeys, why are there still apes and monkeys?”
She convinces him to pose as her boyfriend for Christmas dinner because she doesn’t want the fam to know she’s debasing herself with a married man. And yeah, it’s not the un-hackiest set up ever. In fact it’s almost every rom-com cliché squarshed into a single vignette. But damn if these two don’t have chemistry. Their verbal sparring matches are sharp and unabashedly writerly, and it doesn’t hurt that the camera keeps pushing in on Olivia Wilde’s piercing blue eyes. She just sparkles, you can’t help but fall in love with her.
But even when, against all odds, the script starts to feel organic, it can’t help falling backwards into a vat of cheese. Like when Wilde and Lacy debate religion, and Lacy’s character asks, “Don’t you believe in anything?” To which Wilde’s responds, “You know what I believe in? I believe in Nina Simone’s voice…”
Aside from the fact that it’s a ripoff of the equally nauseating “I believe” moment from Bull Durham, every time I watch a youthful white film character wax poetic about Miles Davis or John Coltrane or Charlie Parker to prove their hip art-kid cred, I feel like vomiting from the eyes. I think Miles Davis and Nina Simone would feel me on this one. There’s nothing so debasing to both the artist being name-dropped and the story being told as someone spouting inherited ideas of “cool” looking for a pat on the head. Later, Goodman and Keaton bond with a stoner neighbor kid they’ve nicknamed “Schnozzle,” over Bob Dylan, the ultimate touchstone of corporate-approved inherited movie cool.
And that’s sort of Love the Coopers in a nutshell. Even when its wonderful cast and occasionally clever screenplay manage to achieve an audience connection, it gets smothered by inherited ideas and cuteness by committee. If that’s holiday tradition, count me out.
Grade: Two Fluffy Dogs and a Farted-On Turkey
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.