In the fractured-family holiday movie "Love the Coopers," hackneyed humor and warmed-over life lessons are strewn like so much overused tinsel.
Christmas dinner hosts Charlotte (Diane Keaton) and Sam (John Goodman), their senile aunt (June Squibb) in tow, haven't told their soon-to-be-visiting kids — unloved playwright Eleanor (Olivia Wilde) and out-of-work divorcee Hank (Ed Helms) — that they're separating. Charlotte's envious sister Emma (Marisa Tomei), meanwhile, gets caught shoplifting for a Christmas present. She's arrested by a cop (Anthony Mackie) who needs mothering. And irascible Cooper patriarch Bucky (Alan Arkin) is upset that his favorite diner waitress, Ruby (Amanda Seyfried), the daughter he wishes he had, is quitting. And, hey, why not make Ruby the girl Hank once pined for from afar, and Hank's ex (Alex Borstein) a harridan who spits food when she eats?
The celebrity soup that is "Love the Coopers" is, indeed, a mess, the kind in which the screenplay by Steven Rogers — cramming in teenage first love, closeted homosexuality, old-age flatulence, a swearing grandchild and more — is made more chaotic by Jessie Nelson's tonally smeary direction. The frenzied first part that cross-cuts among the dread-filled Cooper clan is so haphazardly shot and edited it takes half the movie to assess who's who. Only Wilde's airport story line, in which Eleanor persuades a cute Army-guy stranger (Jake Lacy) to be her fake boyfriend, has a frisson of romantic-comic appeal, despite making little sense.
A big irritant is that the film is over-narrated. (The voice is Steve Martin's.) It explains everybody's eccentricities and baggage ("Aware of the growing distance between her parents …") at the same time the actors are frantically trying to show us. Occasionally a humiliated character actually breaks apart on screen, because CGI apparently clarifies all. When Arkin gives a spirited, heartfelt pep talk to Seyfried, not only does the narration tell us Bucky feels youthful again — because why trust a great actor to convey that? — but also the filmmakers go so far as to replace Arkin briefly with a younger actor. This is a movie that would give you a wrapped present and say: "It's a wallet. It holds money."
By the time this laugh-free movie arrives at its Christmas dinner scene, "Love the Coopers" has force-fed you so much cutesy unhappiness, and clued you in so clearly to its blueprint for togetherness that there's zero tension or release. All that's left is for a bunch of skilled, flailing actors, barely given the chance to make you believe they're related, to go through the motions of ho-ho-ho-hum reconciliation.
'Love the Coopers'
MPAA rating: PG-13, for thematic elements, language, sexuality
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: In general release