Last Christmas is a few steps above a Hallmark movie, only with a bigger budget, more diversity, and charming cast. It’s not a knock against the film’s quality, after all, it’s a movie that clearly loves those types of movies. Delightful and sweet, though it’s a mess, the charisma of its stars gets us through to the end.
Paul Feig’s latest is a movie without any central conflict. This is not to say Last Christmas is a movie without conflict. There are several obstacles to Kate’s (Emilia Clarke) happiness. Obstacles ranging from her dysfunctional family to her own recent health problems.
Kate has recently had a heart transplant and though she has a new lease on life Kate seems unmoored as to what that means for her. She’s homeless and rapidly running out of couches to crash on. Her job at the Christmas shop run by the Christmas-obsessed Santa (Michelle Yeoh) seems to be sucking the life from her. Kate hates her older sister (Lydia Leonard) because she is everything Kate isn’t: happy, in a relationship, successful, and has a bed to sleep in.
Then one day she meets Tom (Henry Golding). A bright, handsome, dashing young man and soon Kate finds herself falling for the quirky man in spite of her own professed cynicism. Little by little he reminds her that there are other people in the world besides her. He supports her but doesn’t let her wallow too much in her own self-pity.
Kate tells Tom she’s homeless and he takes her to a homeless shelter. He doesn’t do this to be mean but to help her realize there’s a difference between not having a place of your own and having no friends or family to support you. Kate is a selfish and petulant woman who if she weren’t played by Clarke she might have come off as insufferable.
But Clarke’s Kate comes off as a bubbly, pessimistic cynic. Her cheerful pessimism creates and fascinating push and pull. She’s not meant to be likable after all. Kate is the type of woman who goes to a family dinner celebrating her big sister’s promotion and when the conversation turns to her she deflects by outing her closeted sister to her parents.
That the movie never touches on the moment again until later on is not the movie subtly telling us how little the moment matters. It’s showing us just how self-involved Kate is. When we see her later on at her sister’s apartment we see her face as she realized what she’s done and how abysmally she’s behaved.
To Feig’s credit, Last Christmas ambles along with a self-possessed charm that allows us to forgive its shallow characterizations. At least it was enough for me. The screenplay by Emma Thompson, yes that Emma Thompson, and Bryony Kimmings is a story whose padding have pads. But the actors are all so darn charming and just plain fun to watch we don’t really care.
Honestly, I just loved being able to see someone give Michelle Yeoh the chance to play a love-struck Christmas obsessed woman. Yeoh is a prolific action star in her own right, but Hollywood has long ignored her full range and often only given her roles playing into her action movie persona. To see Michelle Yeoh stare googly-eyed at a man as he hands her a Christmas tree made of brussels sprouts is exactly what the doctor needed for this cold-hearted world.
Clarke and Golding make for a fantastic pair. It’s a shame we can see from a mile away they won’t end up together. Last Christmas is refreshing if only because it is the rare romantic comedy that requires the heroine to fall in love with herself rather than someone else. Though she briefly does, Kate’s journey is largely re-discovering her love of self, family, and life.
Thompson and Kimming do attempt to buck against the mold though. Not only is Last Christmas a romantic comedy in which the couple doesn’t get together but it also has a political spine propping the whole story up. Kate’s family is from (the now-defunct) Yugoslavia, they fled during the war and the collapse of the state.
Her mother, Adela (Emma Thompson) sits on the couch watching Brexit, her heart breaking. “They don’t want us here!” Last Christmas peppers its Christmas warmth with the harsh realities of immigrants struggling to fit in a society that seems to be growing weary of them. But Feig is careful never to get too heavy-handed and so the serious stuff never bogs down the fluffy stuff.
John Schwartzman’s camera never does anything spectacular except somehow transport us to snowy old England in December. Sometimes camera work isn’t about symbolic visuals and subtle storytelling, sometimes it’s just about making us feel as if we’re there. Shwartzman makes it so it’s all but impossible to leave the theater not feeling warm and fuzzy.
Some of you may be a little ticked that I spoiled the movie by telling you Kate and Tom don’t end up happily ever after. But what I haven’t told you is the twist the movie has in its back pocket. It’s not bonkers, or at least I wouldn’t call it bonkers but that’s because I’ve sat through The Book of Henry and I know what bonkers truly is. But I’ll give the movie credit, it wasn’t until I was getting comfortable to watch my next movie that I realized the sly joke of the title.
I left feeling cheered and oddly elated at the discovery that apparently I’m becoming an Emilia Clarke fan. Last Christmas is a sweet-natured easy-going Christmas movie about love, friends, and family. It never pretends to be anything else and that’s fine by me.