By Bill Mazzola
November 6, 2019
There’s no genre of moviemaking quite as well worn as the seasonal romantic comedy. For the most part, walking into one of these movies is like putting on a well-worn pair of jeans; you know exactly what they’re going to look and feel like. In addition, no holiday has been more exploited when it comes to this particular genre than Christmas. That brings us to Last Christmas, this year’s holiday entry and, wouldn’t you know it, it’s a fairly enjoyable helping of holiday cheer.
Last Christmas is directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) from a script by Emma Thompson (doing double duty here as both writer and performer) and based on the George Michael song of the same name (“Last Christmas”). It doesn’t break any new ground but it navigates familiar territory competently. The film checks all the requisite holiday movie boxes: delightful bickering family, check. Seasonal redemption for our lead character, check. We are also treated to kind of the flawed and complex heroine that we have come to associate with Paul Feig films. The result is a movie that, while it won’t be the big one Feig is remembered for, is a film people might find themselves reaching for in their Christmas future.
Emilia Clarke stars as Kate, a Londoner by way of Yugoslavia. Her family, including an amusingly depressed Emma Thompson, fled war-torn Yugoslavia and settled in London, so the foreign-born Katarina became the more British sounding Kate, much to her family’s chagrin. Kate’s life is in shambles: she’s homeless, she wanders from friend’s couch to friend’s couch in order to escape the attention of her overly concerned mother. She doesn’t take care of her body or her relationships following a health crisis that happened– wait for it– last Christmas. Kate has managed to offend everyone from her semi-closeted lesbian sister Marta (Lydia Leonard), to her “stern with a soft side” employer Santa (a delightfully deadpan Michelle Yeoh), and her life is dangerously close to spinning off the rails for good.
Enter Tom Webster (Crazy Rich Asians’ Henry Golding). After an eye-rollingly contrived meet-cute involving a bird pooping on Kate’s face, Tom begins to ever so slowly improve her life. As you might imagine, Tom seems to be able to see through Kate’s “I don’t care about anyone” façade, offering her a judgment-free ear and gentle understanding that seems a tad too good to be true. As Kate and Tom inexorably grow closer, and as Kate begins to try and fix the mess she’s made of her life, Tom becomes frustratingly elusive for a possible soul mate. Why does Tom seemingly always show up out of nowhere? What the devil is going on here?
The film, of course, takes place in a version of London that looks like Christmas exploded all over it. There is garland, Santa Clauses, reindeer and Christmas lights in every nook and cranny of London, and the gentlest falling snow each and every night. Kate works, dressed as one of Santa’s elves, in an absurdly tacky “Christmas 365-days-a-year” shop for the aforementioned stern but endlessly understanding Santa. Christmas has even invaded the homeless shelter where good Samaritan Tom volunteers. In short, there’s no way to miss Christmas in this Christmas yarn.
Emma Thompson has clearly watched a few romantic comedies in her day. Sharing screenwriting credit with Bryony Kimmings and story credit with Greg Wise, Thompson manages to wedge in all of the classic rom-com and Christmas tropes. Our heroine is a mess, but is also a delightful little sprite. Our hero is almost impossibly smooth and well-intentioned. All of the supporting players in Kate’s life that she’s managed to offend can all be brought together at the climax to celebrate Kate’s reformation. God bless us, every one.
You’ve been here and you’ve seen this but, when you have a talented cast, these things can be both familiar and enjoyable. Feig smartly surrounds his lead with talented people like Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, and the scene-stealing Emma Thompson, who can effortlessly make even the most throwaway lines of dialogue funny. But the film is carried by the pixie-ish Emilia Clarke, as far here from Game of Throne’s Khaleesi as possible. She is up to the challenge of keeping the audience rooting for her, even as she spends a good portion of the film being a generally terrible person. There is more to Clarke than the stern mother of dragons, and both her charm and fantastic smile are on full display here.
As is often the case– not all of the pieces of this story fit perfectly. Thompson and Feig try to cram a political stance on Brexit xenophobia into the proceedings that feels jarringly out of place and, while at times the George Michael musical catalog is great (see: the “Freedom 90” montage), by the end of the movie this reviewer had heard “Last Christmas” enough for one lifetime. The pacing of the film often feels choppy and lurches from place to place like a car in bumper-to-bumper traffic, but the personality of the cast and Christmas-infused magic get it to its destination without accident.
Last Christmas doesn’t reinvent the wheel and more than likely it will not go down as the Love Actually Christmas classic it wants to be. But, it is nevertheless a fairly funny fairy tale with enough heart to keep you warm this Christmas.
Star Rating: 3 out 5