Christmas is supposed to be a season that brings “tidings of comfort and joy.” That’s certainly what the rollicking old carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” proclaims. But for some families, the holidays stir up ghosts of Christmas past, memories of better times … and deep pain. Instead of bringing comfort and joy, Christmas comes freighted with discomfort and despair—not to mention dysfunction and deception.
So it is with the Coopers, a family with a lot of unresolved relational baggage—not exactly the kind of packages anyone wants to unwrap.
Sam and Charlotte have been holding their failing marriage together for a long time. Their union has endured 40 years, six months and three days, we’re told by our omniscient narrator, the Coopers’ loyal dog, Rags. But three decades before, Sam had planned a dream trip to Africa that never happened. Instead, bills happened. And life. And death. And conflict. (Charlotte’s never cared much about her husband’s longing to travel someplace exotic with her.)
So they’ve decided to call it quits. But not, Charlotte insists, until after one last yuletide celebration. “I want the kids to have the memory of one last perfect Christmas,” she begs. Sam agrees to pretend that everything’s OK. But it isn’t.
Not surprisingly, the Cooper offspring also have a hard time telling the truth. There’s Hank, a single father of three (Charlie, Bo and Madison) who doesn’t have the heart to tell his family (or his ex-wife, Angie) that he’s been laid off. Then there’s Eleanor, who’s never gotten over a breakup years before—or, for that matter, her sense that she’s always a disappointment to her mother. So when she meets a charming soldier named Joe at an airport bar, flirting leads to Eleanor hatching a crazy gambit: impressing Mom by bringing Joe home and introducing him as her new boyfriend.
Charlotte’s never-married sister, Emma, also struggles with lifelong resentment toward her older sibling. But when she gets arrested for shoplifting a Christmas gift for big sis (because Emma resents having to spend any money on Charlotte), it’s not clear she’s even going to make it for dinner. (Doing so will require sweet-talking taciturn police officer Percy Williams out of taking her to jail.)
And this being an ensemble dramedy, we’re not done yet.
Bucky (Charlotte and Emma’s father) spends his lonely days (after his wife’s passing) hanging out at a diner, tended to faithfully by an equally lonely waitress. Ruby and Bucky enjoy each other’s camaraderie—more than either of them will let on, in fact. So when Bucky finds out Ruby’s moving away to try to jumpstart her disappointing life, he’s furious. So furious he … invites her to come with him to the Coopers’ for Christmas.
If all that sounds like a recipe for a heaping helping of conflict for Christmas dinner, well, it most certainly is.
Early on, Sam and Charlotte play with their granddaughter, Madison, in the snow. Rags notes how we often miss the significance of such terrific moments in life. In other words, experiencing and embracing happiness is an elusive thing, the movie says, because when we’re most joyful, we may not be paying attention.
Each character remembers key moments in the past when he or she was happy. And as the story progresses, most of them gradually realize that they’re having good moments right now, too, even in their messy present. To embrace those moments, these family members must unclench their grip on old grievances. Though the film never talks about forgiveness, per se, it does convey a sense that happiness requires letting go of the stuff that hurt us so we can be aware of the best things happening now.
That theme is paired with the observation that true intimacy and lasting companionship doesn’t magically evolve in marriage. In Sam and Charlotte’s sad relationship, both have refused to let go of decades-old disappointments. Rags says of that emotional erosion, “It was about the thousand microscopic hurts that accumulate over 40 years.” In the end, though, Sam and Charlotte realize that they really do still love each other, even though their union hasn’t been as perfect as Charlotte had hoped—or as she’d frequently wanted the world to believe.
Speaking of Charlotte’s perfectionist tendencies, both her daughter (Eleanor) and her sister (Emma) ultimately have confrontational heart-to-heart talks with her about how she’s hurt them—something Charlotte has never really grappled with.
Eleanor, for her part, has walled off her heart, preferring to live vicariously through others’ emotions. But Joe connects with her, getting underneath her thick emotional armor, and a real romance blossoms even as they pretend to be in one. Eleanor is also self-aware about her significant flaws and her ambivalence toward her family. “Doesn’t it suck how we want to run from our families and impress them at the same time?” she asks. A moment later, she says her attitude toward her family might be best summed up by her made-up word anticipointment: She longs for their approval, but she suspects she probably won’t get it.
Hank has lessons to learn about being honest, too. He can’t pay alimony due to his financial woes, and he laments, “I was a failure at marriage; I don’t want to be a failure at divorce.” Bucky, especially, encourages him to keep trying.
Bucky and Ruby enjoy a sweet relationship, with the older man often giving her movies to watch so they can talk about them. Theirs is not a romance, but rather a tender, innocent, grandfather-granddaughter kind of love. He tries to convince Ruby that everyone feels sadness and loneliness sometimes, and that simply moving someplace new won’t solve her problems.
Joe and Eleanor are spiritual opposites, with each mocking the other’s convictions. Joe is a conservative Republican Christian soldier, and those elements clash with Eleanor’s aggressively liberal atheism. She’s a big believer in evolution; she says the closest she’s ever gotten to God was listening to jazz singer Nina Simone; and she summarizes Christianity by saying it’s God telling us, “Love me most, or go to hell.”
But while Eleanor playfully mocks Joe’s faith, the film at tries to reserve judgment. And eventually Eleanor confesses to Joe that she actually finds his faith attractive. As the Cooper clan digs in to eat Christmas dinner, Joe says they need to say grace … while giving a nod to the various beliefs of others. (His prayer is interrupted by a jarring abuse of Jesus’ name.)
Christmas carols turn up throughout the movie. They’re even sung by the family, and the majority of them aren’t secular carols like “Jingle Bells.” Instead, we hear songs that focus on the real reason for the season, such as “Silent Night,” “We Three Kings,” “Little Drummer Boy,” “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Joy to the World.” Sam’s a Scrooge in that he deliberately mis-sings some carols, which always prompts correction from Charlotte.
Eleanor and Joe share passionate kisses. She confesses to him that she has been having an ongoing affair with a married man. Charlie, who’s in high school, is determined to kiss a girl named Lauren. He visits her at the mall where she’s working, telling himself internally, “Don’t look at her boobs,” which of course he does. (She’s wearing a cleavage-revealing outfit.) They eventually kiss … a lot … sloppily and intensely. We see her practically crawl on top of him as they make out.
Sam and Charlotte also make out. He fondly references his “first time” with her. We see them changing their pants. (She’s in leggings and a long shirt, he’s in boxers.) Elsewhere, we hear that Hank got Angie (now his ex-wife) pregnant when they were in high school.
There’s talk of Percy being gay “only in bed.” It’s hinted that he’s hidden his lifestyle choices to avoid his demanding mother’s censure.
Bucky tells Hank he just needs to go out and have sex to get over his divorce. “Don’t let one woman define your life,” he says. Sam relates an orgasm joke to a Christmas carol’s lyrics. Bucky jokes about an aging woman’s breasts. A young boy tells a girl, “Show me yours, I’ll show you mine.” She lifts up her dress, revealing tights and a full-length slip; he runs away leaving her feeling taken advantage of. Gingerbread cookies “wear” g-strings.
Charlie gets punched by Lauren’s ex. Charlie’s little brother, Bo, imagines yanking his brother’s assailant’s pants down, then decking him. Bucky notices scars on Ruby’s wrists that imply she’s attempted suicide.
One s-word. “P—y” is used once as a putdown. We hear “h—” and variants of “d–n” twice each. Little Madison has gotten into the habit of telling people, “You’re such a d–k!” a phrase we hear from her twice. (It’s implied that she picked up the vulgarity from her dad, who uses it once). There are at least two dozen misuses of God’s name. (Several times His name is paired with “d–n”). Jesus’ is abused once.
Joe and Eleanor have drinks (martinis, shots) at the airport bar. There’s wine at Christmas dinner and a joke about hard eggnog. While talking with a teen who admits he’s been busted for smoking weed, Sam and Charlotte joke about their drug use back in the ’60s.
Rude jokes are made about a Christmas dish that gives a child diarrhea. Rags’ flatulence drives the Cooper family from the dining room.
Christmas can be a time when we want everything to be perfect. Charlotte Cooper definitely does. But what if everything isn’t just so? What if, under the surface, insecurities and old hurts and unresolved conflict still linger? Those are the kinds of questions Love the Coopers digs into, sprinkling comedy into the struggles this family faces.
Family is the place where we expect and long for unconditional love. And when it doesn’t happen, the resulting wounds can go deep. In Eleanor’s case, it prompts her to say to Joe, “Sometimes I think that I might be unlovable.”
The temptation with such wounds is not to tell the truth about them, because telling the truth is risky. Lying—whether in “little white” ways or via whoppers like Eleanor and Joe’s concocted romance—seems safer. What Love the Coopers does effectively is show how “playing it safe” through such deception ultimately makes us feel more alienated and isolated from those whose love and affirmation we long for the most.
“Don’t we all sort of struggle with this fraud complex?” actor Ed Helms (who plays Hank) asked in an interview with USA Today. “Everyone is afraid of being exposed for everything that they are. We present a sort of edited version of ourselves to the world, especially with our families, where there’s just so much baggage and so much expectation. When you get to explore that, it’s actually kind of uplifting because it reinforces that we’re in this together. We’re all kind of stumbling through and just trying to make the best of it. … There’s frustration, there’s love, there’s support, there are long-held grudges, but ultimately, there’s this sense that we’re actually better off all being together.”
That is indeed the core message in Love the Coopers. We’re better off together. Better off telling the truth than lying. Better off trusting that our family can accept us just as we are than trying so hard to pretend we’re in better shape than we really are.
The core content in the movie, though, is another Christmas story. It’s not Bad Santa, thankfully. Not even close. But foul and profane language, along with some sexual stuff still treat those mashed potatoes on the table in just about the same way Rags does. And slobber like that doesn’t make the big meal nearly as appetizing as you’d like it to be.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.