Paul Feig is a nothing short of a wild card as far as quadruple threats go. First and foremost, as a talented writer under the wings of Judd Apatow, having created a TV cult classic in Freaks and Geeks, where he’d left a real niche in the field. And yet most folks will see him more as an avid film director, whose notable, and infamous hits have involved a collection of classic performances by capable leading ladies. Feig’s latest, Last Christmas, adds Emilia Clarke to that wonderful roster of actresses, a group that have further solidified their more comic abilities. And for the former Game of Thrones star, it is a much-needed change of pace, at a time when genuine rom-coms, namely those with a holiday flair have been lacking a little big-screen oomph and a lot of musicality.
Clarke portrays Katarina, aka Kate, a Croatian-born Brit whose family never felt totally comfortable in London after having moved during the Yugoslav conflict at the turn of the millennium. At a young age, she was an effortless singing prodigy who can make George Michael sound like Enya. Fast forward nearly 20 years, and Kate has settled into a comfortable rut, keeping her head down at a year-round seasonal shop with aspirations of hitting the West End. Add to that her failing overreliance on friends for housing, and her narrow missteps in avoiding her fractured family. Purposefully missing numerous calls from her alcoholic mother (co-screenwriter Emma Thompson), silent treatment from her sister (Lydia Howard), and a moment of cautious desperation with her taxi driver dad (Boris Isakovic).
A serious medical mishap had soured her once cheerful spirit, replaced with bad karaoke and drowning her sorrows at a bar with random hookups aplenty. That is, until she meets Tom (Henry Golding). Her opposite, a free-spirited, handsome, charitable, and self-reliant human, to the point where he’s proud about of needing a cellphone. He’s the right person to change Kate’s fortunes around and encourage her to think more responsibly. To be more of a better person through mildly corny compassion. She refuses with a tense passive-aggressiveness, annoyed too easily by his optimistic attitude and his tendency to disappear so frequently. But after a while, it gets to her, slowly. Her habits change and she starts to do some good, against an occupant fragility calling the shots in the backseat.
Like so many TV movies following a similar plot pattern for a lower budget, Last Christmas plays the card of predictability. And comfortably so, until a few curveballs come along that you’ll either realize right away, or like me, you’ll be painfully oblivious to. All while being too distracted by the presence of the late George Michael’s music, 13 of his songs in all, proven more poignant considering he passed on Christmas Day three years ago. An element Thompson, and co-writers Greg Wise and Bryony Kimmings opt to milk for all its worth. And for a straightforward Christmas movie, it reaches rather unsafe levels at times. Not to mention even without really fixating heavily on its time period, the script does hold the faint scent of datedness. Yes, Brexit’s timely now, but five years later it won’t be more than a footnote.
In attempting to be down-to-earth realistic against its own lofty, diverse mix of subject matter, Feig can’t quite reach that mark. But it counts as a manageable learning curve, even if he spends much of the running time on said curve, risking plenty awkwardness in the timing and pacing. His eye for strong, funny people to populate his designated landscape remains sharper than ever. Quick props to DoP John Schwartzman (The Highwayman) for once again making a location more than a physical setting, capturing the sights of wintry London, whilst allowing them to speak for themselves. Clarke takes a little getting used to, requiring much of the first 30 minutes to really establish her character’s identity. A slacker, lazy, but timid and fractured. I loved her for that vulnerability hidden by a mask of poor coping mechanisms, replaced by a chipper attitude and decent singing voice. Golding, reuniting with Feig after his surprise turn last year in A Simple Favor, won’t be an instant favorite off the bat either. But give him time, and his and Clarke’s chemistry will grow more to a home run instead of a meager pinch-hit.
Just do not expect a duet out of the pair, unfortunately. As Mamma Mia-esque as the marketing would mislead, it’s more akin to Blinded by the Light, wherein the original recordings of George’s songs stand to serve the story more effectively than original renditions could. Save for, of course, the title track with Clarke leading the charge with a group of homeless revelers. You’ll sing along, and they’ll get stuck in your head, but not always do they have much to go on with the role they play, their max potential barely reached, if ever.
Elsewhere in the cast, Thompson writes herself in as what some may consider the most hilarious overall character. With her, too many thick-accented one-liners are guaranteed to be requoted at the dinner table come Thanksgiving. She and Golding’s fellow Crazy Rich Asians alum, the always plucky Michelle Yeoh are the momma-hen characters we rightly deserve here. Yeoh is rather underutilized as Kate’s boss, the savvy, shrewd businesswoman whose defenses fade upon falling head-over-heels for a visiting Danish looky-loo (Peter Mygind). A throwaway subplot follows where the lowly elf plays matchmaker, and it carries some sweetness to it, but neither contributes to nor distracts from our A-plot. At least there are a handful of eye-candy cameos to assist in the offset; Peter Serafinowicz, Rebecca Root, and even a hard-to-spot Patti Lupone among the standouts.
Last Christmas might have been a bit overhyped for this writer in the days leading up to the packed midweek showing I’d attended. And yes, there were many wearing an appropriate holiday sweater that night. In a time where Hallmark holiday movies can repeat a precise formula every year, Feig’s Richard Curtis-esque efforts may not be enough to completely disrupt or destroy the trend, but he easily makes no difficulty of trying for a new form of pure Hollywood distinction. Neither a completely perfect film nor a genuine classic by any measure. There’s much to it between conception, execution and performance strength where it narrowly nosedives. But its spirit is wonderfully infectious. Once we get there, it does get interesting. Clarke helps with that, Thompson too, and to a minor degree their unexpected source material. For those reasons, I don’t see why it wouldn’t grow to be an annual favorite down the line, perhaps in the same way Love Actually has always been. Both are gooey and romantic, the comfort food type. And at this time of year, I doubt we could ask for anything less. (C+; 3/5 horns up!)
Last Christmas opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated PG-13 for language and sexual content; 102 minutes.