By Kristy Puchko | Film | November 9, 2019 |
By Kristy Puchko | Film | November 9, 2019 |
Last Christmas combines the music of George Michael, the humor of Paul Feig, the wit of Emma Thompson, with a romance between ludicrously beautiful people, Henry Golding and Emilia Clarke. How could it be anything less than stupendously charming? By self-sabotaging its central premise.
Directed by Feig, Last Christmas stars Clarke (Game of Thrones) as Kate, a twenty-something party girl whose reckless tendencies are wearing on those around her. With a battered suitcase in tow, she’s currently bouncing from one couch to another, leaving a trail of electrocuted fish, destruction, and frustrated friends in her wake. She spends her nights drinking hard and hooking up with randos. The mornings after, Kate rolls into work at a year-round Christmas decoration store hungover and useless, making her a thorn in the side of her scowling boss, who goes by the name “Santa” (Michelle Yeoh). Throughout all of this, Kate doggedly ignores calls from her mother (Thompson), who is concerned about Kate’s fragile condition.
Last Christmas, something happened to Kate. It’s something that she refuses to talk about and has everyone in her life begging her to settle down, sleep more, drink less, and stop eating junk food as if she’s a teen boy. She ignores them all until she meets Tom (Golding). Their meet-cute involves a duster, a bit of nosiness, and bird poop. Not an auspicious beginning, yet a chaste romance soon blossoms between Tom and Kate as they go on scenic walks, ice skate, and talk. But there’s something strange about how he doesn’t use a cell phone, and just seems to come and go into her life. And yes, this means exactly what the internet predicted from the moment the trailer hit. We’ll have a follow-up piece about this ending reveal coming soon. So let’s talk about all the rest of Last Christmas.
Reckless but warm-hearted, Kate is a lovable trainwreck of a woman. The dialogue—written by Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings—is jaunty with an acerbic edge, which makes the role of Kate seem like it was written for a smirking twenty-something Thompson. To her credit, Clarke gives her all, hurling herself into pratfalls and wiggling her bold, expressive eyebrows for all they’re worth. But Thompson’s shoes are very hard to fill, especially when the mesmerizing actress keeps popping up on screen with a Yugoslavian accent as thick as goulash to drop punchlines about parenting and “lesbian pudding.”
Frankly, Clarke doesn’t have the mischievous edge to pull this off. There’s just something missing. While she and Golding are both gorgeous, their chemistry lacks a sexual spark to the point I was genuinely surprised when they kissed. So, the romance isn’t quite as hot as one might hope. However, Last Christmas’s greater obstacle is how uninterested it is in Tom and Kate’s love plot, even though it’s sold as the film’s heart.
Dealing with the trauma of a serious illness, self-doubt, and the social pressures of moving on, Kate’s problems are worthy of a movie. But Last Christmas regularly dwarfs her concerns by showcasing far greater ones around her. She whines that she’s homeless when she has a room at her parents’ she could go to at any time. Then, she is introduced to actual homeless people, who are sleeping on the cold London streets and depending on charity for meals instead of not food carts or their fussy mother.
Then there’s the Brexit subplot. While Kate worries that her ambitions to become a famous singer will not be realized, Brexit news has her mother frantic that this family of former-Yugoslavia refugees will be cast out of the home they’ve made in England. A seething racist shocks Kate when he shouts at two bus passengers for speaking a foreign language. Yet she experiences no such assaults, likely because she passes as English. Her accent is that of her adopted nation, not her homeland, and she’s rejected her birth name “Katarina” in favor of the UK-friendly “Kate.” So she’s less likely to be targeted by xenophobes.
Perhaps this contrast intended to show Kate realizing the world around her is full of bigger troubles than her personal dramas. However, it also draws sharp attention to how shallow and selfish this heroine is, and frames her woes as “first world problems,” thereby scratching away some of the glossiness of this seemingly shiny holiday movie.
Then, there’s the George Michael of it all. Named for the English rock star’s song, Last Christmas, in theory, is a holiday movie inspired by and featuring his music. The song “Last Christmas” plays throughout in its original form, a Kidz Bop version, a horrific Chipmunks-like variant, and in a rousing group performance. But the rest of his songs seem as arbitrarily wedged in as Kate’s insistence that he’s her idol.
The filmmakers paper her childhood room in posters of him, sprinkle some of his lyrics in with little subtlety, and she’ll sing his praises briefly. But there’s little care beyond these superficial elements. Unlike a similarly set-up jukebox drama Blinded By The Light, Last Christmas does not feel motivated by its music. Instead, Michaels’ hits seem papered over as an afterthought. For instance, “Faith” is played over a montage of Kate doing charity work. Maybe Feig took the title literally or spiritually. Still, it’s exceedingly strange to see a perky blonde feeding the homeless while Michaels’ croons, “Well, I guess it would be nice if I could touch your body. I know not everybody has got a body like you!”
If you squint, you can see the frothy fun movie Last Christmas might have been if it leaned into its preposterous but playful premise full-on. Instead, it tries to do much, much more. This not only hurts the fun of its frolics but also treats major issues—like xenophobia—as if they are a bit of spice to sprinkle on some hot chocolate for a little extra kick. Still, I was charmed. Because while this too-muchness means Last Christmas has a lot that doesn’t work, it also offers a bevy of random delights that do.
Its supporting cast is full of spunk, from the side-eying Yeoh to Peter Mygind as her sauerkraut-loving beau. Santa’s shop offers a wild array of visual gags in the form of kooky holiday merch like a robot-ballerina ornament or a red-glitter gibbon that sings holiday songs. Broadway legend Patti LuPone pops by, not to sing, just to get silly with some baby Jesus statues. Yet the scene-stealers who made we wish they’d get a movie of their own are Last Christmas’s buddy cops. Played by Laura Evelyn and Ingrid Oliver (Osgood from Doctor Who), they won me over from their first joke. The former chides the latter that when she wishes people a merry Christmas it “sounds like a threat.” With the punchline teed up, you might muse how such a thing is possible. How does one make “Merry Christmas” seem like a threat? Then Oliver knocks it out of the park with a delivery grounded yet perfectly hilarious. Every time this peculiar pair of warm cop/rough cop showed up, I perked up and just wished for more. Maybe next Christmas.
All in all, Last Christmas is a festive mess of ideas, earnestness, and goofy gags. It’s equal parts confounding and fun. Yet, for all its wonkiness I relished in its weird flourishes and WTFness. So in a sense, this movie was what I hoped for…then much, much more.
Last Christmas opens November 8.