Sometimes, Christmas with the family is not all snowflakes and sugar cookies, but it's worth sucking it up through the barbed comments and mini-disasters to do it anyway. That's the overarching message behind Love the Coopers, an early (even pre-Thanksgiving) entry in the Christmas-movie genre.
The film concerns four generations of the Cooper family, who all have some kind of secret. At the center are Charlotte (Diane Keaton, who also played a matriarch in the similarly sniping, griping The Family Stone) and Sam (John Goodman), who are headed for a separation after 40 years, but don't want to ruin the holidays by telling their kids.
Their older son Hank (Ed Helms) is a divorcée with three kids who doesn't want to admit to his family that his job taking family photos has been outsourced to a computer. Their daughter Eleanor (Olivia Wilde) is cynical and guarded. Her idea of a good time is persuading a soldier named Joe (Jake Lacy) whom she meets at an airport bar to pretend to be her boyfriend.
Then there's Charlotte's dad, Bucky (Alan Arkin), who feels closer to the waitress at his favorite diner (Amanda Seyfried) than he does to either Charlotte or her sister, Emma (Marisa Tomei), but doesn't know how to tell her.
Love the Coopers revels in the unhappiness and tension at play around the heightened expectations of the holidays - so often glossed over in favor of sweetness and light in Christmas movies. We expect so much during the holidays, but perhaps happiness has been right in front of us the whole time.
It's an interesting approach, to look behind the faux sheen of joy that some families insist on at this time of year. But the movie itself veers messily, and the plot's threads are disjointed. Emma has a detour with a cop (Anthony Mackie, whose talents are totally wasted playing someone who has token-character-of-color written all over him) after a shoplifting incident that, once it comes to a close, is never spoken of again.
Sometimes, the movie can be too nasty. This is supposed to be a dramedy - Steve Martin narrates with a lovely "A Visit From St. Nicholas" rhythm to his voice. But watching people be miserable with each other for the movie's run-time does not always make for a pleasant experience.
Directed by Jessie Nelson. With Diane Keaton, John Goodman, Marisa Tomei, Alan Arkin, Ed Helms, Olivia Wilde. Distributed by CBS Films.
Running time: 1 hr., 46 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (thematic elements, language, and some sexuality).