It feels as if there has been a dearth of good new Christmas movies in recent years, with Aardman’s 2011 effort Arthur Christmas looking like the last time we saw an obvious future classic. But like buses, we’ve had three come along at once this week- the Gremlins-esque horror Krampus, the drug-fuelled comedy The Night Before and, more accessibly than either of them, the family ensemble comedy Christmas With The Coopers.
Sam and Charlotte Cooper (John Goodman and Diane Keaton) have grown apart over the course of their 40 year marriage and they’re looking forward to having their extended family home in Pittsburgh for Christmas dinner. Over the course of a hectic Christmas Eve, we follow four generations of Coopers through their own individual trials on their way home.
Eldest son Hank (Ed Helms) has unlikely job interviews to attend, while still lying to his ex-wife (Alex Borstein) about retaining his job at a supermarket. Daughter Eleanor (Olivia Wilde) compares notes on life and love with returning soldier Joe (Jake Lacy) while they languish in an airport lounge. Charlotte’s sister Emma (Marisa Tomei) spends the day in Officer Williams’ (Anthony Mackie) squad car after being arrested for shoplifting a gift, while their father Bucky (Alan Arkin) makes the most of his last day with favourite waitress Ruby (Amanda Seyfried).
You may recognise this kind of seasonal ensemble film – look no further than Garry Marshall’s Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve for examples of the kind of slushy thematic piecemeal movies that exhaust every romcom convention. Closer to home, Richard Curtis’ Love Actually is a sprawling romantic comedy set around Christmas that inspires a Marmite-like spread of reactions from audiences.
Here, by basing the action around one large and deeply dysfunctional family, director Jessie Nelson and screenwriter Steven Rogers have managed to mitigate some of the formulaic flaws with this type of film. For one thing, it’s got a healthy aversion to slush that most often manifests itself in the Sam and Charlotte storyline.
Goodman and Keaton are very watchable together here, playing a couple that pulls their family in close while using every private moment to discuss or argue about when they’re going to break the news that Sam is moving out. Charlotte wants “one last happy Christmas” as their 40 year marriage crumbles, but in between the bickering, these two terrific actors have immense warmth between them.
Less successful is the sparky stuff between Wilde and Lacy, which skews closest to the kind of stock romcom micro-plot that gets piled into Marshall’s films – she’s a liberal, jaded by experience, and he’s a conservative, optimistic and wholesome, and despite some swerves, you can telegraph their through-line from the moment they meet. That said, it does offer a couple of highlights as Rogers actively takes the piss out of the kind of embarrassing situations that only arise in this genre.
Of course it sprawls, as these films are almost designed to do, with Steve Martin’s on-the-nose narration taking us through generations of supremely awkward first love, married couples who have drifted apart, a platonic May-December romance of sorts (in which Arkin twinkles grouchily, as only he can) and, most distractingly of all, one character’s closeted homosexuality and repressed childhood.
It’s inevitably a little repetitive too- with so many different groups of characters, we need about four different breaks into act two, one for each couple, before the family all comes together. It raises a few chuckles along the way and really gets going once the whole brood get around one table.
It’s endlessly schmaltzy, certainly, but for the time of year, sometimes a bit of schmaltz is just what you’re after. As a festive treat, it has none of the rough edges of, say, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation or even this week’s Krampus, and it’s hardly likely to take on anything like the rewatchability of your favourite Christmas films either.
But the ensemble does strong work and it garners enough goodwill to all to sustain it across a sub-genre that’s notoriously difficult to balance. Thanks to particularly good turns by Goodman, Keaton and Arkin, Christmas With The Coopers is breezy without being a throwaway trifle, packing a whole bunch of emotional baggage that keeps it from being too twee, but then also unpacking it rather than summarily discarding it for an inevitable happy ending.
There are obviously other Christmassy alternatives available, but it surpasses expectations, as the kind of film which at any other time of year (namely Valentine’s Day or New Year’s Eve) may have been unbearable, to deliver a solid and watchable family comedy.
Christmas With The Coopers is out now.