I was not prepared to like Love the Coopers as much as I did. The marketing for the film is terrible, centring around the kind of cloying, saccharine sweetness that was as uninteresting as it was generic. But the film itself is a study of emotions and the deeply complex issues it attempts to address are anything but the sappy molasses that one might expect.
The film, directed by Jessie Nelson (I Am Sam; Corrina, Corrina) from a script by Steven Rogers (P.S. I Love You, Kate & Leopold), tells multiple stories that eventually coalesce in the final act, all following members of the same family as they make their way to a Christmas Eve dinner. Charlotte Cooper (Academy Award winner Diane Keaton; The Godfather Part II, Annie Hall) and her husband Sam (Primetime Emmy Award winner John Goodman; The Big Lebowski, Alpha House) are hosting the gathering, which includes a collection of their children, grandchildren and extended relatives.
Charlotte is attempting to craft one last perfect Christmas for their family before she and Sam separate, a decision they have kept secret from the rest of the Coopers. Charlotte’s father Bucky (Academy Award winner Alan Arkin; Little Miss Sunshine, Argo) is confronted by the fact that Ruby (Amanda Seyfried; Mamma Mia!, Les Miserables), a young waitress at his regular diner that he has grown attached to, is leaving town. And Charlotte and Sam’s son Hank (Ed Helms; The Office, The Hangover Part III) is coping with divorce and unemployment at the same time his son Charlie (Timothee Chalamet; Interstellar, Homeland) is navigating his first crush.
Charlotte’s sister Emma (Academy Award winner Marissa Tomei; My Cousin Vinny, Crazy Stupid Love) finds herself in hot water after being caught trying to steal a brooch from a shopping mall, resulting in an extended interaction with a police officer named Percy (Anthony Mackie; The Hurt Locker, Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Finally, Charlotte and Sam’s daughter Eleanor (Olivia Wilde; House, Tron: Legacy) starts up a conversation with Joe (Jake Lacey; The Office, Girls), a soldier preparing for deployment, in an airport bar and the two find themselves becoming closer as the day wears on.
There’s a lot going on in each of these stories, but not on the surface. Each narrative has a deeper level to it that gradually becomes more apparent as the film goes on, and the initial veneer of insincerity is worn away. There’s real complexity here; Charlotte and Sam’s story illustrates two people who love each other and drift further apart no matter how hard they try to stop it, Hank’s tackles the idea of a man who has spent his entire life focusing on two things that have now been ripped from him, Emma’s addresses jealousy and bitterness built up over decades and Eleanor’s explores a woman who’s been burned too often and has retreated into herself as far as she can.
These are heavy topics and the film handles them very well. Charlotte and Sam’s story is the one the film orbits around, with the characters’ statuses as the family’s matriarch and patriarch providing an effective focal point for the rest of the stories to spiral off from. Plus, Keaton’s and Goodman’s performances are unimpeachable. The flashes of warmth in the pair’s interactions subtly give way to a deep and quiet sadness once the moment passes and the two of them do outstanding work throughout. It’s their story that feels the most natural throughout the film, and that honesty and rawness makes it the most emotionally involving storyline.
The other plot that really works is Eleanor and Joe’s tête-à-tête in the airport. Wilde and Lacy have fantastic chemistry, and that spark is crucial for the plotline, anchoring it as it gets progressively more heightened and keeping the character’s decisions believable despite their occasional insanity. It’s the most traditionally romantic thread of the plot and perhaps the most fun as well, but it manages to remain a decent character study of Eleanor, though not always one that is consistently effective. However, it’s without a doubt the most enjoyable element of the film, and it’s a brilliant showcase for Wilde and Lacy.
The rest of the plotlines are a little less effective, trading the complexity afforded to Charlotte, Sam and Eleanor for the interest of time. Hank’s story for instance, is described rather than shown, consisting largely of an exposition-heavy exchange with Bucky, but Ed Helms does fine work in the underserved role.
Meanwhile, the pairing of Tomei and Mackie is never properly paid off, though the two work well in their increasingly bizarre character dynamics. These storylines are truncated in order to get all the Coopers to the dinner in a reasonable amount of time, and while it’s the correct decision for the film, it remains a disappointment.
When the cast finally gets into the same room together, the result is a hectic and rapid fire scene that illustrates just how well the film has fleshed out its characters and their respective storylines. It’s a crowded sequence and the characters bounce off of each other bombastically, but the film manages to harness that energy and the exceptional cast handle themselves ably.
There are moments where the film veers into “awww” territory a little too far. Nevertheless, the tone successfully walks the line between sweet and self aware, a tone embodied perfectly in the narration from Steve Martin, which is totally earnest when it needs to be and mildly sarcastic on occasion as well. The narration spells out a lot of the subtext, a potentially disastrous move, but it pays off thanks to the tone of the writing and the fact that it never underestimates the audience’s intelligence. Except for an absurd final monologue that does more harm than good, the narration turns out to be an unexpectedly excellent choice for the film.
Jessie Nelson’s direction is also to be praised, adopting an almost ethereal viewpoint at times as he opts for some great montages and creative editing to underscore the movie’s themes. The film’s use of music is also exceptional, scoring sequences with an excellent soundtrack including one show-stopping use of the Nina Simone cover of To Love Somebody and a recurring deployment of Sting’s Soul Cake, the haunting tone of which is played up to great effect.
The more I think about Love the Coopers the more I like it. It’s a far more complex film than the marketing gives it credit for and it attempts to tackle difficult issues rather than skate by on cliché and schmaltz. A few of its storylines feel underserved, certainly, and the ending tries a little too hard to wrap everything up with a nice little bow, but the film strikes an emotional chord I was unprepared for and that, combined with an exceptional cast and a wonderful soundtrack, makes Love the Coopers a surprisingly great movie with a lot of heart and a lot of intelligence.