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Non-Review Review: Christmas with the Coopers

Christmas with the Coopers largely succeeds at what it sets out to do.

It is an affectionate ensemble dramedy that celebrates the eccentric and the surreal aspects of family units, whether those are families that were found or those that were thought lost. Christmas with the Coopers is part of a proud holiday ensemble tradition, a spiritual successor to New Year’s Day or Valentine’s Days, although it seems like any true Christmas ensemble piece must rest comfortably in the shadow of Love Actually. It seems unlikely that Christmas with the Coopers will become a new holiday favourite.

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Nevertheless, there is a charming efficiency to Christmas with the Coopers, with the movie accomplishing a lot of what it sets out to do. There is festive cheer a plenty, wry narration from Steve Martin, lots of mad dashing through convenient obstacles, affirmation, snow, and the warm realisation that family is what you make of it. There are very few surprises to be found, but then that is entirely the point. Christmas with the Coopers aims to be as reassuring and as familiar as any old-fashioned family holiday get together.

It largely succeeds.

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Christmas with the Coopers draws together an impressively broad ensemble. Diane Keaton is listed as producer, and cast as the family matriarch. Alan Arkin, Ed Helms, Olivia Wilde, John Goodman and Marisa Tomei round out the family; Amanda Seyfried and Anthony Mackie are along for the ride as by-standers who get caught up in all the holiday excitement. Inevitably, the film builds towards a Christmas that brings the family together, but it also diffuses the ensemble across multiple stories unfolding simultaneously building towards that reunion.

The stories are almost archetypal. There are points at which the film uses a split screen effect to demonstrate the disparate lives led by the members of this wandering clan, but those compositions often remember custom holiday greeting cards arranged affectionately on the fridge. As Christmas Eve unfolds, so do a collection of holiday-appropriate stories. There is a lonely old man and a waitress in a dinner, a divorced father trying desperately to find a job, a couple who meet by chance at an airport on the way home, a couple sharing one last Christmas together.

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The cast are thrown together almost randomly. Working out of what feels like a set of holiday-themed madlibs following logical arcs, the various subplots stand or fall based on the relative strength of their respective players. With few surprises in terms of plot or structure, Christmas with the Coopers ends up counting its cast. Olivia Wilde gets one of the meatier strands in terms of screentime, but she lacks chemistry with co-star Jake Lacy. Ed Helms has perhaps the saddest story of the cast, but is given nobody to play off until the obligatory happy ending dance scene.

Marisa Tomei and Anthony Mackie might be trapped in the movie’s most thankless strand in terms of plot and character development, but they play well off one another and demonstrate their strong sense of comic timing. John Goodman and Diane Keaton are hardly pushing themselves, but there is something reassuring in how relaxed they feel within their comfort zones. Alan Arkin and Amanda Seyfried are also stronger than the material they have been given. (Which admittedly builds to a somewhat creepy resolution.)

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As with a lot of these sorts of ensemble dramedies, there simply is not enough room or time to develop the cast into anything more than broadly-drawn types. There is very little to distinguish the details of any of the narratives from stories that have been told better before. It doesn’t help that Jessie Nelson’s direction and Steven Rogers’ screenplay are both very pedestrian and very relaxed; despite the fact that Christmas with the Coopers is saturated with melodrama, there are precious few stakes.

Even Steve Martin’s narration borders on prosaic, building towards a final reveal that seems a little internally inconsistent. Indeed, the obligatory happy ending feels more than a little too staged, to the point where two characters seem to foster a spontaneous romantic connection despite barely interacting with one another just because they happen to be the last two single named characters in the room that are not related to one another. It practically comes gift-wrapped.

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Then again, Christmas is the perfect time to tie neat bows around things. Christmas with the Coopers alludes repeatedly to other classic Christmas films, consciously evoking It’s a Wonderful Life with the same frequency that it asks performers to run urgently through contrived obstacle courses. Christmas with the Coopers seems unlikely to ever take pride of place beneath the Christmas tree, but there have certainly been worse stocking fillers.

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