Once upon a time, there was a writer and editor who reviewed movies as part of his job at an alternative weekly magazine. As was the case with many such pop culture writers, his plate filled up as the holidays drew near; the major film studios tend to release a lot of movies at the end of the year, from prestige films to feature-length animation.
And sometimes—not always, but often enough—these major studios release a Christmas-themed film, in the hopes that it will become a “perennial”—a film that families return to year after year. Such films, including It’s a Wonderful Life and Elf, allow families to get into the spirit of a family holiday without actually having to talk to each other.
The alternative magazine writer had seen more than his share of these holiday films, from Home for the Holidays to Planes, Trains & Automobiles, before he was called to sit down in front of Love the Coopers, a film directed by Fred Claus producer and writer Jessie Nelson. The writer didn’t expect much from it, because most Christmas films don’t exactly set out to reinvent the genre. And to his astonishment, Love the Coopers fell short of even those diminished expectations.
The writer sat dumbfounded for 106 minutes as he was subjected to every Hallmark Special cliché imaginable, including the well-meaning dad who doesn’t want his family to know he’d lost his job (Ed Helms); the doddering, senile aunt (June Squibb); the precocious toddler who’s just learned her first cussword (Blake Baumgartner); and the sad, lonely man whose heart grows to three times its size (Anthony Mackie). Characters transform into their younger selves as they speak their hearts. An elderly relative is rushed to the hospital while a melancholy Sting song plays. And arguing couples actually say, “What happened to us?”
It should be said that the writer is not a cold-hearted bastard. He has cried rivers at various Disney films. Like the late Roger Ebert, he is always touched when characters make deep personal sacrifices. He was more than willing to give Love the Coopers a chance to turn the spigot on his waterworks, but its characters sacrifice nothing. Some of them move from a place of selfishness to one of acceptance, but without a compelling reason to do so; they change only because the script demands that they do. A few of the actors, most notably Olivia Wilde and John Goodman, are able to negotiate that tight emotional turn; most others wipe out in the snowbanks.
Luckily, Alan Arkin was on hand, and the writer can’t recall a time when Arkin has disappointed him. Arkin maintains that perfect record here. He glides around Love the Coopers’ clumsy dialogue as gracefully as an Olympic skater, and it’s only during his scenes with Helms and Amanda Seyfried that the film feels more substantial than it is. If the writer hadn’t had Arkin to lean on, he might have been tempted to walk out during the scenes featuring celebrated Woody Allen apologist Diane Keaton, who gets caught acting more than any two other performers in the film.
There remains little more to tell, save for this: Love the Coopers has an annoying, omniscient narrator (Steve Martin). If a character fails to tell you what he’s thinking, the narrator steps in and tells you; sometimes, he tells you even after you’ve figured out what a character is thinking, because screw you and your intuition. It goes a little something like this: “The writer stormed out of the screening, determined to give Love the Coopers the poor review it deserved.” Having spent some 600 words subjected to that patronizing storytelling device, you can only imagine how the writer felt as he left the theater, relieved that holiday movie season comes but once a year.
Love the Coopers (PG-13): ★✩✩✩✩