Movie Review: Love the Coopers
By Ben Gruchow
November 19, 2015

That looks like this year's Christmas card picture!

An ensemble movie like Love the Coopers is made for a very specific type of audience member. The goal is to, in roughly 100 minutes, offer a peek into a world where every personal problem and weakness has a clear and simple root, almost always involves distance from or rejection of family and/or tradition, and is fully addressed in the final 10 minutes by a single heartfelt moment. It offers simplicity and clarity. Whether it does this well is another matter entirely.

We know there will be a driven, independent woman, estranged from the family (Olivia Wilde and Marisa Tomei, in a twofer). There will be a married couple in the middle of a secret falling-out (John Goodman and a digitally-airbrushed maquette impersonating Diane Keaton). There will be a family man (Ed Helms) who fights with his ex-wife (Alex Borstein) over their two shared children. One of those children is growing into a sullen teenager (Timothée Chalamet) and the other just wants Mom and Dad to stop fighting (Maxwell Simkins). We know there will be elderly matriarchs (June Squibb) and patriarchs (Alan Arkin), who are more or less relegated to the background unless a nugget of well-timed wisdom is needed.

I have not yet covered the waitress looking to start over, the police officer who is stoic for personal reasons, or the guy about to ship out overseas. Interestingly, we’re also given a narrator (Steve Martin) who sits somewhat outside of the movie’s immediate universe and yet seems to know all parties intimately. I would not dare reveal the ultimate identity of the narrator, which is given only in the final minutes; I will only note that it seems as if the filmmakers reached the end of their film, realized they’d forgotten to add closure, and hurriedly employed voiceover and second-unit footage to create one.

All of these individuals will come together for isolated bits of comedy and drama, and our job is to watch the personalities off of each other and (hopefully) identify with one or more of them. This, along with the assumption that the filmmakers are doing their job correctly and momentum is building up as the movie progresses, is how we’re to be affected by the revelations/crises/heartfelt moments/all of the above in the final act.

It also provides us with the added benefit of lowered expectations… which is why, in the midst of bland tripe, we can be surprised by a moment that discovers a rhythm between its participants and latches onto it. This happens here in a couple of dialogue scenes set in a rail car, and for just a little bit we get a suspicion that there might be a deeper intelligence at work, and maybe the movie’s just a slow starter. This is also noticed in other, smaller moments, whether it’s a line of dialogue or a striking bit of framing or use of color. And some events are actively absurd: during a scene where a character really, desperately needs to get down a hallway to an elevator fast, the movie throws so many physical obstacles her way that some doves or a walk-on by a sheet of plate glass begins to seem not just possible, but thematically appropriate.

Soon enough, though, it’s back to business as usual, and the movie resumes the march to its final set piece. I will leave it to you to find out or guess whether or not the set piece here takes place at: a) a hospital, b) an airport, c) a train station, d) a snowy town square at midnight, or e) all of the above. Contextualizing this type of movie as empty-calories comfort food, made for audience members seeking refuge from the real world, also helps inoculate you once things start going south. You’ll need that. Heaven help you if you walk into this with normal movie standards applied.

Here is a film where Driven, Independent Woman A is so triumphantly anti-faith and anti-religion (and her religious Meet Cute encounter at the airport so guileless, self-possessed, and unquestionably wonderful) that we know beyond any doubt that Driven/Independent is compensating for something. Where Family Man, presumably an adult who was self-controlled enough to raise kids to teenagerhood, afford a house, and maintain working relationships with his parents, loses it during the opening statement of his job interview. Where Patriarch and Waitress get into a falling-out over life decisions (or potential life decisions) that approach but do not equate to adolescent in their maturity level.

Here is a film about shallow, venal people and the problems they create for themselves and for each other, almost precisely until the clockwork moment in the script where they’re required to have a change of heart. You can tell they’re having a change of heart, because of the dialogue that carefully explains everything that everyone is thinking, and also because of the loud clicking sound the gears make when they shift.

And the movie is pretty mean-spirited toward its characters, especially the younger ones. A holiday movie with a mean streak is not a recipe for disaster; nor is one that is shallow and feel-good and ultimately made for reassurance and not dramatic truth. A holiday movie with a mean streak that wants us to feel good about shallow people is what we’ve got here, and it made short work of my patience. Two things work in its favor: It has such sour stablemates in the holiday-movie subgenre that it avoids being the worst of them with relative ease; and for most of its running time, it’s too bland and toothless to really be offensive.

These are the only two things. Even under the low standards we’ve set for it, Love the Coopers doesn’t deliver much of anything worthwhile. None of the talented cast gets a chance to develop their character (and some, like Anthony Mackie’s officer, are utterly wasted), we never get the sense that these are functioning personalities on even a two-dimensional level, and the enterprise just kind of slops and oozes along in a series of histrionic little episodes until it decides to end. I will leave it to you to find out or guess whether or not the final scene involves: a) a big holiday meal, b) an extended dance sequence, c) moppets, or d) all of the above.

For some, the movie will provide an affirmation of the lasting power and connection of family. Pity they do not receive that message through a smarter, more capable film. For others, the archaic nature of the dynamics and world will be an active irritant. For still others, the shoddy editing and botching of tone and distracting visual effects will be a deal-breaker (the copious amount of digital smoothing performed on Diane Keaton’s face is a more frightening special effect than anything from October. Keaton in real life looks great at nearly 70; what were they thinking?)

And for a small sect of the moviegoing population, the movie’s execution of ancient clichés and spectacular lack of self-awareness about them will lead to some bitter humor. There are no reasons to honestly appreciate Meet the Coopers, and plenty of reasons to pass it over in favor of another piece of cinematic comfort food - one that isn’t quite so shrill, or so rote and simpleminded.