Last ChristmasReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/08/19 06:19:19
“Last Christmas” is an unspeakably awful holiday-themed romantic comedy—and, alas, so much more (and less)—that has been set to the tune of so many tunes from the George Michael songbook that I believe that they more than outweigh the number of actual Christmas carols on display. How bad is it, you might ask? Before the screening, I was engaged in conversation with a few of my colleagues and, for reasons that currently elude me, the topic switched gears to a discussion of the infamous screen adaptation of Gore Vidal’s “Myra Breckenridge,” in which Rex Reed has a sex change, transforms into Raquel Welch and heads off to Hollywood to bring down the patriarchy with the aid of saucy talent agent Mae West, who was about 80 at the time and whose attempts to look decades younger left her appearing virtually mummified. If I was held at gunpoint and forced to create a list of the best holiday movies to watch with the entire family this season (pretty much the only set of circumstances under which I would write such a thing), I would put “Myra Breckenridge” on it long before I would even think about including this one.Meet Kate (Emilia Clarke), who emigrated with her family from Yugoslavia to London as a child to escape the war and who later suffered from a severe heart ailment. Now she is a total mess who is estranged from most of her family, abuses the good nature of her friends until she is virtually out on the streets, drinks like a fish and, perhaps as a sort of penance for her sins, works as an elf in a year-round Christmas store under a boss who calls herself Santa (Michelle Yeoh) and for whom enforced jollity is her life’s calling. One day, while entering a particularly low point in her existence, she sees a well-dressed young man standing outside the shop looking up into the sky. In order to keep the story moving along, she goes out to investigate and it is here that she meets Tom (Henry Golding), a super-nice guy who is just looking at a bird as part of his personal creed to always “Look Up” (though it will eventually turn out that he probably should have rethought that way of thinking at some point). Yes, Kate looks up and yes, the bird responds with what I can only assume is its general response to the film as a whole.
These two could not possibly have anything in common. She is brash, obnoxious, self-centered and self-destructive while he is polite, giving (he volunteers at a local homeless shelter) and so dedicated to being in the now that he has locked away his cell phone so as not to be distracted by the joys life has to offer. Nevertheless, in true Hallmark holiday movie fashion, a sort-of relationship develops that involves a lot of solitary walks, solitary excursions and moments where they are just by themselves. Things aren’t perfect—Tom has a disconcerting tendency to disappear for long stretches—but under his benign influence, Kate starts to become a better person. She starts to rebuild her relationship with her overbearing mother (Emma Thompson with a goulash-thick accent) and her sister, who has resented her for getting all the attention because of her health problems. She tries to make up for a work-related calamity by nudging her boss towards a German customer who plainly likes her as much as he likes fermented cabbage (and the movie takes pains to reveal that he really likes fermented cabbage). She begins volunteering at the homeless shelter herself (though never when Tom is around) and even helps to arrange an elaborate Christmas Eve talent show. The one thing that would make things absolutely perfect would be an official relationship with Tom. The one drawback is that he seems to be hiding something from Kate and when she finally uncovers what it is, it will comes as a shock to—well, we’ll get to that.
To be fair, given my usual temperament towards such things, an unabashedly sentimental bit of holiday froth is not the kind of film that is usually up my proverbial alley. That said, I confess that my hopes were actually a little higher for “Last Christmas” when I went into it. It is filled with actors that I like—Clarke will always be my queen, Golding was impressive in both “Crazy Rich Asians” and “A Simple Favor” and Yeoh has been a commanding screen presence for more than a quarter-century now. Director Paul Feig has done a lot of films that I have liked, including “Spy,” the “Ghostbusters” reboot and the aforementioned “A Simple Favor.” It was co written by Emma Thompson, who is generally aces both as an actress and as a writer. Hell, even the gimmick regarding the George Michael songs is one that isn’t necessarily a bad idea either, even if the song that the film appropriates its title from is not necessarily a holiday tune per se. Combine all of these elements and one would have to try very hard to come out with a bad movie in the end but unfortunately, pretty much everyone involved seems to have chosen to make the extra effort.
The chief culprit, as it turns out, appears to be Thompson, who, along with co-writer Bryony Kimmings, has coughed up a piece of Yuletide treacle that it almost makes “Santa’s Summer House” seem palatable by comparison. The whole thing has the feel of a proposed subplot to “Love Actually” that was sensibly excised for being too preposterous and insufferable, only to be inexplicably revived and expanded upon. To make matters worse, the whole thing is leading up to a late-inning twists that is clearly meant to come across as absolutely shocking and devastating to viewers, forcing them to reevaluate everything that they have seen up to that point. The problem is, the twist is so painfully obvious virtually from the start—“The Village” did a better job with cleverly disguising where it was going—that at a certain point, you start to suspect that the screenplay must have something else up its fur-lined sleeve as well but no, what you see, alas, is what you get. Perhaps belatedly realizing how thin the central story was, Thompson and Kimmings throw in all sorts of other little diversions to steal focus—the stuff involving Kate’s boss and her boyfriend, Kate’s sister keeping her girlfriend a secret from her parents, the war in Yugoslavia, Brexit, xenophobia and a wacky pair of cops among them to name just a few. They all come across as mere distractions and give the script such a ramshackle and undisciplined feel that the very idea that Thompson and Kimmings could have possibly be proud of what their efforts had conjured up is more startling than anything seen on the screen.
Since the screenplay is so crummy in so many ways, none of the other talents involved are able to make much of their respective duties either. Clarke and Golding are both effortlessly charming performers and would seem to be an ideal pairing for a romantic comedy. Unfortunately, their respective characters are so colorlessly and bland—they feel more like random assemblages of ticks and quirks than actual people worthy of interest—that it is impossible to generate any concern for them or if/how they will wind up together in the end. (And since the twist is foreshadowed so early and so often, it has the added effect of making Clarke’s character seem like a dope for going along for so long before things finally begin to click.) Yeoh is still a formidable screen presence but, to put it gently, whimsical comedy is not really her forte, especially when much of her character’s humor springs from her occasional mishandling of the English language (which is especially weird considering there is a later scene when a newly enlightened Kate comforts a couple of fellow Yugoslav refugees when they are upbraided on a bus for not speaking English). The worst performance, however, comes from Thomson, who seems to have given her script exactly the amount of acting effort that it is worth with an embarrassingly hammy turn as Kate’s mother—the whole thing is a shockingly false move from such a normally reliable actress. For his part, Feig keeps things moving along in a blandly efficient manner that tries to find a balance between holiday fantasy and gritty reality and constantly misses the mark.Outside of the likes of Netflix, where they have become a virtual cottage industry in the last year or so, the romantic comedy genre has been on the ropes as of late and a film like “Last Christmas” will not do it any favors. It clunks when it should soar, it curdles when it should cheer and it goes for a climax that brutally tries to jerk both tears and laughs from viewers without ever coming close to earning either one of them. There probably is some kind of audience out there for a film along these lines but even they will probably be put off by how shabbily and cynically the goods have been assembled this time around. That said, the George Michael songs still work and if the film does anything right, however inadvertently, it reminds us once again of his supreme talents. In a way, it makes sense that his music would take front and center here since “Last Christmas” is a film that finds viewers asking for a little bit of Faith as they enter the multiplex but which will have them begging for Freedom long before it mercifully ends.
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