Love the Coopers **1/2

A winning ensemble cast elevates an agreeably quirky Yuletide dramedy hampered by contrived situations and an overwrought third act.

Is it worth $10? Yes

When it comes to “Love the Coopers,” CBS Films/Lionsgate's let's-work-out-our-issues Christmastime yarn, the key to knowing what to expect is actually pretty simple: Ignore the ads. Rarely has this critic seen a more ludicrous case of a studio mismarketing a release by passing it off as something worse than it actually is.

Trailers promoting the latest film from producer-director Jessie Nelson (“Corrina, Corrina,” “I Am Sam”) promise a madcap farce full of pratfalls and sassy sound bites. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover the finished product is an altogether different kind of beast, a wistful, melancholy tale of a dysfunctional clan going through their day as they muster up the strength to make it to their annual Christmas Eve dinner at the home of chipper matriarch Charlotte (Diane Keaton) and Sam, her husband of 40 years (John Goodman).

Before diving into Coopers' myriad storylines, Nelson opens the film with a genial montage showing the citizens of Pittsburgh treating the holiday with quotidian nonchalance. Men in Santa suits head to work. Holiday shoppers flock to the mall to pick up some last-minute items. Seasonal goodies are on display everywhere, though this is the kind of Christmas movie where gingerbread men wear thongs with dollar bills.

Cinematographer Elliot Davis (“Out of Sight”) contrasts the festive glow of that sequence with a desaturated gray palette in the scenes where we're introduced to some neuroses-addled characters decidedly not feeling the Christmas spirit. Charlotte and Sam may look like a happily married couple, but they're thinking about telling their adult children Hank (Ed Helms) and Eleanor (Olivia Wilde), as well as Charlotte's baby sis Emma (Marisa Tomei) that they're going their separate ways after the holidays.

Hank, meanwhile, pretends to be gainfully employed but is actually desperately looking for a job, any job, even if it means being interviewed by a Staples employee young enough to be his son. Emma, on the other hand, is acting out a grudge against her older sibling by channeling her inner klepto at a department store. The gambit doesn't work, and she's taken away in handcuffs by the glum Officer Williams (Anthony Mackie). At the same mall, Hank's son Bo (Maxwell Simkins) is trying to pick the perfect present for geeky older brother (Timothée Chalamet), who's so busy trying to woo store clerk Lauren (Molly Gordon) he doesn't notice his nerves have triggered some embarrassing armpit perspiration.

At a diner across town, Charlotte and Emma's dad, Bucky (Alan Arkin), talks old movies and life lessons with heart-of-gold waitress Ruby (Amanda Seyfried), who's mulling a drastic lifestyle change Over at Pittsburgh International Airport, Eleanor chats up military boy next door Joe (“Obvious Child's” Jake Lacy, aka Tom Cruise and Matt Damon's love child) at a bar and talks him into killing some time with her. It's the latter storyline that allows screenwriter Steven Rogers (“P.S. I Love You”) to dig deeper, using the strangers' wildly differing worldviews (she's an atheist liberal; he's a God-fearing Reaganite) as a departure point for an unlikely courtship with echoes of “Before Sunrise.”

Photo courtesy CBS Films/Lionsgate

If the above scenarios sound like a screenwriter's conceit, that's because they are, unapologetically so. The film's overqualified cast, Wilde and Lacy in particular, make these contrivances feel freshly minted. And Nelson's approach here thankfully hews closer to her similarly quirky work in “Corrina, Corrina,” in which Whoopi Goldberg played housekeeper to Ray Liotta's jingle-writing widower circa 1959, than to the more syrupy “I Am Sam,” in which Sean Penn groveled for an Oscar nod as a barista with intellectual disability. For instance, a quick throwaway moment in “Coopers” that has a Christmas light display being turned on a second after a man in a Santa suit snaps his fingers recalls the running joke in “Corrina” in which Goldberg's character could change a stoplight from red to green by blowing it a kiss.

The chemistry between the actors in “Coopers” is so disarming that I kept wishing for more bittersweet resolutions to the narrative strands that finally intersect at the aforementioned dinner. But Nelson and Rogers can't help themselves, and they work overtime to tie up every single storyline in a tidy bow. It's tempting to dismiss the film for wimping out just when it looked like it was heading in a more sobering direction. For a sizable chunk of its running time, however, the filmmakers prevent “Coopers” from coming across as generic holiday fare for the multiplex crowd. Seriously, when was the last time a major studio release deconstructed classic films like Charlie Chaplin's “City Lights” and George Cukor's “Born Yesterday?”

Give “Love the Coopers” a little credit. Even though its Christmas miracles aren't always fully earned or easy to swallow, it arrives at its (manufactured) happily ever after from a genuine place of despair, and that part, at least, rings true. The title may sound like an order, but this warmhearted slice of Christmas cheese treats viewers like well-served guests.

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