So many try; so few succeed.
First up this year is “Love the Coopers,” a mixed bag of tricks that struggles to resonate with a Christmas spirit as multiple generic subplots compete for attention.
Astutely cast and directed by Jessie Nelson (“I Am Sam”), “Love the Coopers” mostly relies on its actors to juice up often clichéd story lines.
It’s a busy movie with a large cast of characters as four generations of the Cooper family gather under a single roof on Christmas Eve, an occasion that, you gather, is not repeated other times of the year since close proximity tends to strain family ties.
Steven Rogers’s screenplay divides itself more or less into five separate subplots following individual family members as they negotiate a tricky long day’s journey into Christmas Eve.
In so doing, of course, Rogers creates a series of hit-or-miss situations. Some story lines deserve more screen time than they get while others get more screen time than they deserve.
Among the former concerns a surprisingly strong bond between an aging family member and a waitress who serves him breakfast each morning. So strong is this non-familial relationship — stronger, the movie implies, than with his own two daughters — that he eats in the diner daily despite the fact he dislikes the food.
Alan Arkin plays Bucky, a retiree who engages Amanda Seyfried’s Ruby each morning, perhaps sensing something needy and sad in the young woman’s life. She might also remind him of his late wife, whom he still misses greatly.
She will wind up accompanying him to the Coopers’ large suburban home, where in the scheme of things she may or may not romantically hook up with his daughter’s son.
The two actors manage to create something touching and real in their few moments together where there are hints of real tragedy in Ruby’s life that is never explored.
The other solid subplot, one that could have been the basis for a main plot, concerns Olivia Wilde’s “black sheep” family member. A playwright with a single hit but now a dry spell, Eleanor must return to her family home without a mate for the umpteenth time.
She so dreads her parents’ disappointment she hangs out in an airport bar to kill time before the inevitable. Here she meets Jake Lacy’s Joe, an Army soldier about to ship out but forced to spend the night at the snowed-in airport due to a cancelled flight.
Yes, of course, she asks Joe — begs is more like it — to “play” her boyfriend for Christmas Eve. This despite the fact the two swiftly discover they agree on absolutely nothing — not politics, not religion, not any subject that comes up — he being a Republican Christian trying to put a bad-boy past behind him while she is a cynical non-believer and die-hard liberal.
Yet they can’t help being attracted to one another.
Other story lines feel forced and even superfluous. For instance, unbeknownst to everyone else, the rock of the Cooper family is about to crumble. Charlotte and Sam Cooper (Diane Keaton, John Goodman) pledge to keep secret from the family, at least for Christmas, news of their imminent separation.
However, this is never a real threat. The conflict between them feels artificial and much too easily resolved. This merely gives them something to bicker about as they go about getting the house and themselves ready for an onslaught of relatives.
The worst subplot has Marisa Tomei playing Charlotte’s younger sister (younger by two decades!), who gets arrested for shoplifting. That in itself is highly unlikely and never fully motivated.
En route to the police station, which must be in another state the ride takes so long, Emma subjects Anthony Mackie’s Officer Williams to a therapy session to unravel his own holiday angst.
Playing Charlotte and Sam’s son, Hank, Ed Helms has to cover up the fact he’s lost his job while dealing with three kids and a perpetually pissed-off ex-wife, Angie (Alex Borstein).
About all he really does is provide a link with his three kids — five-year-old Madison (Blake Baumgartner) who has just learned a naughty word; seven-year-old Bo (Maxwell Simkins), who is, can you believe it, mischievous; and moody sixteen-year-old Charlie (Timothée Chalamet), in the throes of his first major crush.
Other characters lacking story lines but inserted for color or comic stunts include June Squibb’s Aunt Fishy, her memory fast fading — dementia here being used as the stuff of comedy — and Rags the dog around whom no food can be left unattended.
The movie is narrated, so it can include flashbacks to Christmases past, by Steve Martin although the identity of his character remains unclear until the very end.
So the movie unwraps itself in this manner, not all gifts being equal but all imbued with a sense of how messy family life can be and how Christmas can make all things better despite evidence to the contrary.
Not enough here to hate the Coopers but certainly not much to love either.
Opens: November 13, 2015 (CBS Films)
Production companies: An Imagine Entertainment, Groundswell Films, Handwritten Films production
Cast: John Goodman, Diane Keaton, Alan Arkin, Ed Helms, Anthony Mackie Amanda Seyfried, Marisa Tomei, June Squibb, Olivia Wilde, Alex Borstein, Jake Lucy.
Director: Jessie Nelson
Screenwriter: Steven Rogers
Producers: Michael London, Janice Williams
Executive producers: Kim Roth, Anna Culp, Ted Gidlow, Steven Rogers, Diane Keaton
Director of photography: Elliot Davis
Production designer: Beth Ribino
Music: Nick Urata
Costume designer: Hope Hanafin
Editor: Nancy Richardson
PG-13 rating, 107 minutes