Diane Keaton doesn't go in much for quaint or kitschy holiday traditions. At her home in Los Angeles, you'll find no fruitcake, no snow globes, no festive holiday apron. Definitely not the apron. But in reading the script for "Love the Coopers," a new holiday film she stars in and helped produce, she realized the apron was key.

"Putting on that big Christmas outfit is not exactly my idea of a good time, noooo," she says, laughing. "I had to just take my own eccentricities and let them go."

Keaton plays Charlotte Cooper, a determined matriarch out to create the "perfect Christmas" for her star-studded clan, which includes her frustrated husband, Sam (John Goodman), an old coot grandfather (Alan Arkin), quirky kids (Ed Helms, Olivia Wilde), a sister (Marisa Tomei) plus assorted grandkids, in-laws and surprise guests. Arkin brings along a waitress from his local diner (Amanda Seyfried); and Wilde picks up a soldier on leave at the airport (Jake Lacy).

Besides mistletoe, there's jealousies, secrets, mess. And it's the mess that this new film, opening Nov. 13, celebrates.

"Life is complicated," says Keaton. "But families, with all their imperfection, matter so much, and I think it's not bad to be reminded of that at the holidays."

 

SNOWFLAKES AND SORRY SANTAS

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The opening montage, with its cavalcade of images both crass (a fruitcake assembly line, scores of sorry dudes in Santa outfits) and captivating (children catching snowflakes on their tongues) underscores how the holiday season in 21st century America is . . . well, as Keaton says, complicated.

Like a timer going off telling you the gingerbread cookies are done, we all feel (or it seems most of us do) that instant pressure come November and December to suddenly get in line with that overhyped, commercialized version of the holidays. We strive for a kind of Martha Stewart-on-overdrive perfection that few (not even Stewart, we learned) can achieve.

"Time for comfort and joy, it's Christmas," gripes grandpa. "As if you can schedule happiness."

And yet year after year, so many of us try.

"Going home for the holidays, you have this impulse to present a version of yourself to your family that isn't quite what's going on in your life," says director Jessie Nelson. She remembers times in her own life, when relationships or her career weren't exactly on track, wanting to save her parents from potential disappointment.

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Or as daughter Eleanor (Wilde) calls it, "antici-pointment" -- that feeling of anticipating everyone's disappointment in you before you even get there.

 

A DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY CHRISTMAS

For the Coopers, there's lots of dysfunction chased with the eggnog -- though everyone's trying to keep it under wraps. Unemployment, troubled relationships, no relationships, a touch of kleptomania and the unraveling of a longtime marriage.

That's the issue for Charlotte and Sam, who are staying together for one last Christmas. For Keaton, being paired opposite Goodman was a dream come true. As producer, she pushed for him to be cast in the role.

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"I was so excited to play his wife," she says. "I'm a big fan -- I think he's kind of a genius."

She also praises their director, who she says helmed the project with a maternal sensitivity that unified the large, multigenerational cast.

Perhaps T Bone Burnett also deserves some credit. The famed guitarist and record producer was on hand last January when Nelson hosted a music rehearsal in her L.A. home. Burnett was there to teach various cast members Christmas carols, which they sing in a family caroling scene.

"We had wine and good food and sat around for hours just singing," Nelson recalls. "That was the day I learned -- oh, my God -- they're like the 'Von Coopers.' You know, like the Von Trapp family? They're all so musical: Diane sings so beautifully, Alan Arkin plays the ukulele, John Goodman plays harmonica, Ed Helms plays three instruments. Singing all around the room together, the barriers went down. I think we all became a family that night."

And good thing. Several weeks later, they'd left balmy Southern California for the frigid snows of Pittsburgh, where the film was shot. "We needed that weather, but it was interesting to navigate," says Nelson. "It was 10 below on certain days when the actors were shooting outside. The camera trucks froze. They were real troupers."

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Of course, perfect film shoots are like perfect Christmases -- impossible.

Which is why Keaton, who is a single mom with an adopted son and daughter, says she doesn't bother with the traditional family Christmas. So what does she do for the holidays?

"I like to get in a car and go on a trip," she says. "Just take the kids and hit the road."

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Diane Keaton's nontraditional movie holidays

Diane Keaton admits she's not much of a traditionalist when it comes to the holidays. And the holidays don't get much of a traditional treatment when they pop up in her films. Here, some unexpected holiday moments from Keaton's film history.

THE GODFATHER (1972) A happy Kay and Michael Corleone (Keaton and Al Pacino) exit a department store laden with packages, as Kay recounts the gifts she's gotten for Michael's family "And what do you want for Christmas?" he asks. "Me? Oh . . . just you." Cut to a dark room, as a gangster puts on a bulletproof vest and checks his gun. All while "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" plays in the background.

ANNIE HALL (1977) Christmas in Beverly Hills is way too green and sunny for Alvy (Woody Allen) when he and girlfriend Annie (Keaton) visit Tony Roberts on the Coast. Alvy: "Can you believe this?" Annie: "It was snowing and really gray in New York." We hear a children's choir singing carols as they ride in a convertible past palm trees and mansions. Alvy: "Nice. Santa Claus will have sunstroke."

RADIO DAYS (1987) Keaton, billed as "New Year's Singer," is seen in a nightclub on New Year's Eve performing a sweet rendition of Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To."

THE FAMILY STONE (2005) A delightful and often underrated film about an uptight woman (Sarah Jessica Parker) trying -- and failing -- to fit into her boyfriend's crazy clan during the holidays. "What's so great about you guys?" she asks her boyfriend's disapproving mother. "Nothing," Keaton admits. "It's just that we're all we've got." Truer words about family and the holidays were never spoken.