2019 | rated PG-13 | starring Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yoeh, Emma Thompson | directed by Paul Feig | 1 hr 43 mins |
Paul Feig’s career has been on an interesting journey. Feig, after all, was the creator of Freaks and Geeks, one of the great one-season TV shows of all time, a show that bucked network mandates at every turn and failed both with audiences and NBC for it. Since then, Feig has found great success as a studio hack dutifully putting together movies out of studio notes & mandates to promote a particular actor they’ve struck a deal with. He does what they tell him, then puts on a very dapper suit and bow tie and hits the press junket, often insulting the audience, and is the toast of the town while Sony (usually Sony) carpet bombs us with promoting the living hell out of whatever they made. His movies usually make a lot of money. Still, Feig hits cynical studio assembly-line rock bottom with Last Christmas, a painfully messy, voiceless, creatively bankrupt piece of yuletide trash that desperately wants to be in your regular rotation every December.
As Game of Thrones wound to an end it became clear that Hollywood were doing everything they could to signal boost Emilia Clarke into a movie star. Clarke always seems charming in interviews, yet through either bad luck or a bad agent, she has stumbled through this transition being miscast in one thing after another (like Terminator Genysis). Last Christmas is Paul Feig slavishly following this mandate, as he’s done in the past trying to put the star power on Melissa McCarthy or Leslie Jones. The story, co-written by co-star Emma Thompson based on the George Michael song of the same name is the messiest Feig has ever tried to tackle. I got what he was trying to do with Ghostbusters, The Heat and A Simple Favor. I have no idea what this thing is trying to say.
The plot, as it were, finds Kate (that’s our star Emilia Clarke) an anti-hero who is both kind of a jerk but also just thoughtless being kicked out of her flat and trying to find a place to stay, while avoiding her mother (Thompson) on the week before Christmas, often staying in the Yuletide year-round Christmas shop she works in with Santa (Michelle Yoeh). That her boss is not actually named “Santa” is one of the film’s many “surprise twists” that is telegraphed right from the jump. She spontaneously meets Tom (Henry Golding, A Simple Favor) outside the shop and after several attempts she agrees to go out with him and his many kind gestures start to warm her heart.
Right off the bat, the movie isn’t quite sure what it wants us to think of Kate. She’s kind of like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope flipped on it’s head by someone who doesn’t understand the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. She’s selfish but the movie depicts this as klutzy and adorkable because it desperately wants you to like Clarke’s character while at the same time trying to have a complex female anti-hero. Feig is following the studio notes to make Kate a complex female character (and maybe she was at some point in Emma Thompson’s script) but he also wants her completely dependent on the people around her and keeps her in an elf costume most of the movie because a bunch of Suits probably thought Clarke would look cute in an elf costume. Feig seems to not know or not care enough about women in film history to know that really only Audrey Hepburn could pull this kind of role off and come out charming on the other end. There is a template for it, but nobody cares enough to follow it.
If Clarke is given the Manic Pixie Dream Girl personality, it’s Golding that is given the MPDG’s function in the story. This is the trope that usually finds a sexy bartender listening to the complaints of our usually male loser lead and deciding to take a ridiculous amount of interest in turning his life around. He’s rigid and she’s wild and free and breaks him out of his shell. This is What’s Up, Doc, Garden State, Elizabethtown, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Forces of Nature. Last flips those gender roles with Golding given an inhuman amount of quirky charm, elevating his concern for Kate’s well being to saintly proportions (he takes her to a homeless shelter he volunteers for). He grabs Kate and dashes her through unseen parts of London, literally making her open her eyes and look around. It’s all so on the nose. The film is barely hiding a twist here. One so obvious you can guess if from the trailer alone. If this is Feig hold a secret close to his chest, he sounds like a guy you’d love to play poker with. He’d get a pair and the whole table would immediately know.
Speaking of weirdness, there is a weird, almost “Hi Doggie”-esque scene, where a stranger (Peter Mygind) comes into the store and Michelle Yoeh’s character is immediately taken with him. The appearance of this stranger grinds the store to a halt and seems like a big deal to everyone involved. Is he a celebrity? Royalty? An opposing shopkeeper? I wonder if the scene was originally written arund a George Michael cameo that never became reality with Michael’s death in 2016 but they just kept it as is. Similarly the slow, mangled reveal of Kate’s medical history and heart operation is unclear. At one point she says she had an illness as a child and how deeply her mother enjoyed the doctor’s attention and then she says she had surgery a year ago. Also, Kate hates Christmas but works in a year-round Christmas shop, a little detail that would be more interesting if the movie took place in any time other than Christmas. A movie about a Christmas shop set in July, would be the kind of ironic joke that Feig spends the entire movie searching for.
Last Christmas is a Christmas movie that doesn’t really want to be a Christmas movie. Holiday songs are replaced with a full soundtrack of George Michael and Wham because nothing says Christmas like “Freedom”. Kate even wakes up to “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go”. London, the Dickins epicenter of Christmas, is showing in back alleys and small houses. The film tracks in a ton of Feig’s usual politics: building an entire storyline around Kate’s Yugoslavian mom’s fear of anti-immigration sentiment post-Brexit. Brexit. This is your Hollywood Christmas movie.
There is a very simple redemption story at the heart of Last Christmas that the film is too hazy and jumbled and bogged down with messages to find: A woman who is miserable, acts miserably to those around her, and gets a second chance to look at life. Except Kate’s Scrooge attitude isn’t fully developed, her journey with Tom is random and underdeveloped and her final turn toward redemption is more perfunctory than revelatory. The ending twist actually undoes the entire journey. It also renders the movie’s romance even more nonsensical. It’s one thing for Tom to want to help Kate live life, it’s another for him to actually fall for her for less than no reason at all.
Last Christmas is one of the worst, most baffling studio films I’ve seen in a while. It came in, like all Paul Feig movies do, on a tidal wave of hype and it doesn’t even feel finished. It feels like someone should have gone back through it, re-edited, re-written and clarified just about everything that happens. A cinematic stack of square pegs just jammed into round holes. None of these nitpicks would matter at all if the movie was for a second funny or sweet or romantic or wrapped up in the holiday spirit. Instead it consciously and caustically rejects all of those things. It’s the worst film Paul Feig has made – and that is really saying something.