Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated PG-13, 102 minutes
Directed by: Paul Feig
Director Paul Feig’s LAST CHRISTMAS is a Christmas-themed romcom told through the inspirational through-lines of George Michael and Wham’s chart-topping songs. The deceased singer-songwriter’s “Heal The Pain,” which opens the movie, predicates the heavy thematic tones of the narrative journey. This high concept, weaving Michael’s music throughout, plays close cousin to a jukebox musical. Yet it would’ve fared far better had it fully immersed itself in that innovative idea. As is, the use of on-the-nose needle drops lacks the genuine ease and palpable sense of wondrous delight captured within those catchy melodies and poignant lyrics.
Kate (Emilia Clarke) is in the middle of a life crisis when we first meet her. She’s a party gal addicted to disaster, depression and disillusionment. She’s clearly not living up to her full potential, dodging her Slavic heritage, disappointing her Christmas store owner boss Santa (Michelle Yeoh), and ducking calls from her worried, insomniac mother Petra (Emma Thompson, who pulls triple duty here having also produced and co-written the film). Kate’s also on the outs with her successful closeted sister Marta (Lydia Leonard), and stuck denying any existence of a life well-lived thanks to an illness that caused her to re-evaluate it.
However, things begin to change for the better once Tom (Henry Golding) enters the picture, altering Kate’s cynical outlook and acerbic temperament. His Manic Pixie Dream Boyish swagger and sense of whimsy leads them on adventures around London like ice skating on a closed, romantically lit rink (set to “Praying For Time”) and canoodling in a quintessentially English community garden. The burgeoning romance shakes up her worldview, causing her to do nice things for others – redemptive quests to bring her boss and a shy customer (Peter Mygind) together, help the homeless at a shelter, and restore her familial balance. But Tom’s hiding a big secret, one that’s easily uncovered if the audience has been following the clues leading to the big reveal.
Whether or not you’ve figured out the maddening mystery behind Tom’s backstory, Feig’s film shockingly sputters to provide a satisfactory holiday escapist romance. What should be cute comes across as cloying and unoriginal. What should feel feminist, given Thompson’s co-authorship role, seems a rote twist on a familiar formula. Switching the sexes around on trope-fueled characters doesn’t necessarily make them groundbreaking or dynamic. Plus, the filmmakers aren’t so much concerned with following the rules of the world they’ve created as they are with getting from one sequence to the next.
If the titular song isn’t enough to clue the audience in on the plot, other predictable, leaden and obtuse soundtrack selections will hold their hands, guiding them through it. Though many of the songs come off of Michael’s masterful “Listen Without Prejudice (Vol.1)” (an album title that also augments the film’s sentiments about the refugee crisis, bigotry, and Brexit), some stray towards his more light-hearted bops. “Too Funky” plays when Kate kookily electrocutes a fish. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” blares when she wakes up alarmingly on her long-suffering best friend’s couch before she’s kicked out. “Fast Love” scores her one-night-stand’s send-off. Pièce de résistance “Faith” plays when she regains it in herself.
The script, co-written by Bryony Kimmings from a story by Thompson and Greg Wise, also fails to deliver truly engaging jokes or comedic farce. Scenes involving the two bickering cops (played by Laura Evelyn and Ingrid Oliver) aren’t punchy enough, and neither are most of the jokes in the film. A long-ish running gag about the store’s off-kilter collection of quirky ornaments doesn’t elicit much laughter either.
On the whole, LAST CHRISTMAS is severely lacking the zippy energy and witty, hilarious zing of previous Feig comedies like BRIDESMAIDS and SPY. It’s a shame this wasn’t a satire, or spoofy send-up of a Hallmark Christmas movie. Instead it appears he and the other creatives involved wanted to do something much more earnest, which is admirable, but poorly executed. Great comedy can be conjured out of sincerity.
While their chemistry is more sweet than sultry, Clarke and Golding’s individual performances are what keep us tethered to the picture. Clarke, whose wildly expressive eyebrows make her a living Disney animated heroine, precisely guides us through Kate’s serious struggles. Golding’s deft dexterity, hopping up and down on benches, skirting passersby with dancer-like flair, all in a trench coat, makes us wish he was currently in a lavish musical number about singing in the rain.
Ironically, our desperation for a better film overall is found in the lyrics of “Everything She Wants” (another Wham ditty exploited here), which prophetically states, “It’s out of reach. Not good enough.”
LAST CHRISTMAS opens on November 8.