The seasonal, multi-character, we’re-all-connected comedy is not exactly cinema’s gift to humanity. From the smarminess of Valentine’s Day to the uninspired idiocy of New Year’s Eve, these films can be downright offensive to those who dare to watch them too closely. The characters tend to be both clichéd and thin, the situations both unconvincing and fragmented — all usually tied up with a glib message seemingly cobbled together from Hallmark’s discards. (There’s one called Mother’s Day coming up; get excited.) So, imagine my surprise upon discovering that the latest iteration of this largely repellent subgenre, Love the Coopers, appears to have been written by sentient people who have observed real human beings in the wild. Don’t get me wrong: It’s just as often manipulative and contrived, but Jessie Nelson’s film sells itself well. There’s care in the details, and the characters often feel like actual people.
The film shows us the extended members of the family in question as they get ready in their own individual, anguished ways for Christmas dinner. When we first see matriarch Charlotte (Diane Keaton), she’s arranging her 37th snow globe around the house, but we’re told her perfectionism doesn’t extend to her marriage to Sam (John Goodman), which is falling apart; after the family dinner, the two will announce that they’re splitting up, which is why she wants everything else to be perfect. The whole family, it seems, is dreading coming together. The Coopers’ son Hank (Ed Helms), a divorced dad of three kids, has been hiding the fact that he’s lost his job as a family portrait photographer. Their daughter Eleanor (Olivia Wilde) is in an airport bar getting nice and soused, preparing for the inevitable judgment of her family, when suddenly she meets Joe (Jake Lacy), a soldier returning home. Charlotte’s dad Bucky (Alan Arkin) prefers to spend his time eating at a local diner, talking movies and life with waitress Ruby (Amanda Seyfried). Meanwhile, Charlotte’s younger sister Emma (Marisa Tomei), who has always lived under Big Sis’s shadow, shoplifts a brooch which she intended to give Charlotte, and gets herself arrested by a stone-faced cop (Anthony Mackie).
That’s a whole lot of stuff, but its general shape is pretty clear early on: This is a movie about how we don’t really appreciate the good things in life when they’re actually happening, and the importance of stopping to be happy now and then. Predictable, to be sure — Frank Capra mined this territory pretty thoroughly many decades ago — but Love the Coopers wins points for its refreshingly dark sensibility. It’s not afraid to call bullshit on holiday cheer, and clear-eyed about the fact that holiday gatherings are often settings for heartbreak and misery. Director Nelson and screenwriter Steven Rogers (who wrote Stepmom, Hope Floats, and P.S. I Love You, so he clearly knows his way around a tearjerker) give many of the characters stylized little montage flashbacks, played sometimes for bittersweet adorableness, sometimes for genuine pain. A portly security guard remembers all his previous kisses under the mistletoe, reaching back to his childhood; Mackie’s cop recalls how his mom shamed him out of smiling as a kid, and we see a series of portraits showing his progression from boisterous young child to grim police cadet; Ruby remembers serving dinner to her family back when she was a child, because her mom was too drunk to do so. Sometimes the past and the present commingle: When Bucky makes a particularly earnest declaration, Ruby sees him for an instant as the young man he used to be.
That cast helps, too. Movies like New Year’s Eve have to settle for people like Ashton Kutcher and Lea Michele and Jon Bon Jovi delivering their dialogue; here, when John Goodman turns to his soon-to-be-separated wife and says, “We had a good run, Charlotte. Nobody can say we didn’t try,” he fills it with the heartache of a lifetime. The words are simple, but they’re backed by feeling. All too often, this kind of film can feel like a series of narrative tactics in search of a story — the fragmented structure a crutch holding up underwritten, under-thought ideas. But the individual strands and characters in Love the Coopers feel like they’ve been thought through, and I could easily watch an entire film built around just one of them. That might be the highest compliment I can pay a film like this.