The trailers for the never-to-be-classic Christmas movie Love The Coopers make it out to be a banal but well-meaning piece of holiday fluff, filling the obligatory “ensemble dramedy” slot on the holiday movie bingo card created by the success of Love Actually. It’s a multi-narrative ensemble piece featuring a slew of Big Names, including Diane Keaton, John Goodman, Olivia Wilde, Ed Helms, Amanda Seyfried, Alan Arkin, Anthony Mackie, and Marisa Tomei. Even Steve Martin is along to narrate. But Love The Coopers is not banal and harmless, it is actually a searing portrait of holiday-driven despair, a ruthless and harrowing look at emotional burnout and the soul-crushing playacting demanded by the holiday season.
Diane Keaton stars as Charlotte, the empty and unfulfilled matriarch of the Cooper clan, who wants to leave her dead marriage before she herself dies and is subsumed back into the earth, her only legacy to be an ever-fading memory. But it’s Christmas, so Charlotte must pretend that she still feels things, and she and her husband, Sam (John Goodman), agree to not tell their adult children of their pending separation, lest these grown people be plunged any further into emotional chaos than that already wrought upon their lives. Charlotte immerses herself in her happy fantasy, decorating her home and setting out food spreads straight out of a Martha Stewart holiday editorial. She even puts a ribbon around her dog’s neck, signifying how family becomes a noose around one’s neck. Sam valiantly does not drink himself to death.
Charlotte’s family includes her harpy daughter, Eleanor (Olivia Wilde), a woman so besieged by fear of her overbearing mother and her expectations for Eleanor’s life that Eleanor convinces a soldier, Joe (Jake Lacey), to pretend to be her boyfriend. They are not well suited at all, but Joe and Eleanor are of a similar age and attractiveness level, so they go through the motions of a mating ritual, ensuring they will spawn and preserve the human race for another blighted generation.
There is also the son, Hank (Ed Helms), who, like his mother, hides his failures behind a façade of happiness, not telling his family that his marriage has ended and he’s lost his job. Plagued by his shortcomings as a man—and threatened by the overtly masculine Joe—Hank is a barely-tolerable spaz and unwitting aid to his mother’s fantasy. It’s as if they exist in a shared delusion in which the Coopers are truly a family bound by love and mutual admiration, and not a collection of people who loathe one another and are simply waiting for each other to die.
Charlotte’s younger sister, Emma (Marisa Tomei), deals with the disappointments of life by stealing, for criminal acts are the only thing that can make her feel. Officer Williams (Anthony Mackie) tolerates her but feels no sympathy, for he has seen true horror and another emotionally numb white lady barely registers. And Aunt Squishy (June Squibb) has sunk fully into Alzheimer’s cruel clutches, though her family overlooks her obvious need for medical supervision and specialized care, instead treating her crippling disease as a quirk of old age. Aunt Squishy is all of us, wrecked by the harsh realities of life, and ultimately ignored by the unfeeling universe.
And finally there is Grandpa Bucky (Alan Arkin, though it seems that Robert De Niro should have been in this), a man so lonely and alienated that he spends all his time in a diner talking to the waitress, Ruby (Amanda Seyfried). His own family being a collection of disappointing nothings, he devotes himself to Ruby, who is, at least, interested enough to listen to him ramble on about his unchanging days as he waits for Death’s cold embrace. Ruby is his last chance to imprint himself on the world, fashioning her into a family-substitute and desperately hoping she will be his legacy, the net good left behind by his existence. But in the end there is only a turkey sliding across the floor in that old holiday-movie cliché, and the Cooper’s legacy is like that slimy trail of poultry-juice smeared across the floor—sticky, kind of gross, and soon erased, wiped away by the mop of cosmic time. Everything fades to nothing, including Love The Coopers.