Last Christmas is Charming, Sing Songy, and Pretty Dumb (Movie Review)

Schmaltzy Christmas flicks are typically the sole property of the Hallmark channel. Still, Universal made a list, checked it twice, and included charming leads Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding, the music of George Michael/Wham!, and a Love, Actually London setting for Last Christmas. Still, perhaps the script could have been checked a few more times? The cast has spirit, but is that enough to bring forth holiday cheer?

Kate (Clarke) works at a shop where it’s Christmas 365 days a year. That alone would probably be enough reason for her to be a hot mess. She becomes even more unreliable to family and friends after surviving a near-fatal illness just a year ago. Kate is very much a movie concoction of trainwreck and adorable. She calls her boss “Santa” (Michelle Yeoh) even though there’s no way that’s her real name. She drinks too much and hooks up with randos. (I mean who hasn’t been there, amirite?). And via Clarke’s big eyes sees the world as equal parts joyous and terrible.

As such, the looming specter of Christmas Past, er, Adulthood is inching ever closer. A chance encounter with Tom (Golding) who’s a spirited kind of guy that says “look up!” so you don’t miss out on life and dances on the spot might just put her on a better path. Oh, and he’s super handsome since he’s played by Henry Golding.

The hook of the film is that it was conceived by using the music of Wham!’s titular song and other hits from their (and George Micheal’s) catalog. It’s not quite a musical, although Kate does fancy herself a singer. She goes on auditions and sings out loud when the moment is right (or not.) And a lot of the time, she performs while in a green elf outfit. If you love these pop songs, you’ll hear Clarke’s renditions (she can sing!), and the original recordings played over scenes like some retro 80s music video. I love these songs, so I was on board.

Love, Actually is actually one of my favorite rom-com holiday flicks. A big reason was seeing a great ensemble across the pond struggle the ups and downs of meet-cutes (Although, that American vacation bit never worked for me). So, I can see why director Paul Feig took a swing. His last film was a departure, the dark comedy neo-noir A Simple Favor (which also starred Golding). A romcom-sorta-Christmas musical is certainly not a slam dunk like Heat or Spy would be for his brand of comic timing. So kudos to Feig for trying.

The cast is pretty solid. Clarke has proven herself to be funny, spontaneous, and all other sorts of acting traits she was never given a chance to play on that HBO show about dragons and iron thrones (I think it was called Ballers). Golding has a presence I want to see more of. Emma Thompson is credited as a co-writer, and also portrays Kate’s long-suffering, heavy-accented, Eastern European momma. And hey, when is Yeoh not a delight onscreen?

For a good bulk of Last Christmas‘ run time, I smiled and went with it. Whether it’s Kate’s way of always screwing up or the way she manages to compartmentalize everything in her life, she’s the kind of holiday character who goes from scene to scene and rarely feels generic or wacky for wacky’s sake. A big part of that is Clarke’s can-do personality. She had a similar presence a few years back in Me Before You. Here, she’s more of a cute-destructive than a clumsy-optimistic, but the actress imbues her with the same energy.

Golding is saddled with a less well-rounded character by design. He’s sort of like a manic-pixie dream dude or maybe that beam of light Will Smith played in The Legend of Bagger Vance. By design, we as the audience fall for him like Kate, but we’re fully aware something about him is being withheld.

That something, sadly, nearly ruins the previous 90 mins. I won’t spoil anything, but I will say that the kind of revelation I think Feig and Thomson are going for is more metaphorical than real. I suppose that’s fine, so long as you don’t think too hard.

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