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Non-Review Review: Last Christmas

Last Christmas certainly has its heart in the right place.

On paper, there’s a lot to recommend Last Christmas. Paul Feig is one of the most reliable comedic directors working today, and his work on films like Spy and A Simple Favour deserve consideration among the best comedies of the decade. Emilia Clarke is coming off an extended run as one of the two primary stars of genuine cultural phenomenon Game of Thrones, and has proven herself a likable romantic lead even in solid-if-unremarkable projects like Me Before You. Tony Golding has charisma to burn, as demonstrated by his supporting turn in Crazy Rich Asians.

Things are looking up.

Unfortunately, none of this really coheres as well as it should. Given the talent involved, this comedy should go down a festive treat. While it’s hardly a lump of coal, it is decidedly underwhelming. The problem isn’t a lack of surprises. After all, Last Christmas aspires to comfort rather than novelty. The problem is that Last Christmas is built around the assumption that it has the perfect festive surprise waiting for its eager and bright-eyed audience members to unwrap. Unfortunately, it vastly over-estimates how much some wrapping paper and bow can disguise a familiar outline.

Last Christmas feels far too pedestrian and far too predictable for what it is trying to do. There’s a potentially interesting premise here, but Last Christmas never really tries. It gives up the ghost too early.

Elf help.

To be fair, there is a potentially interesting way to execute the central premise of Last Christmas. Indeed, there are more than a couple of romantic movies (and romantic comedies) that get a surprising amount of mileage out of a development that Last Christmas treats as a twist. Of course, to list those movies would count as a spoiler of itself, but there is a sense that the big problem with Last Christmas isn’t its pivotal climactic plot point, but how it chooses to approach that plot point. Last Christmas treats this element as a profound revelation, when it’s as obvious as Rudolph’s red nose.

Last Christmas stars Emilia Clarke as Kate. Kate is an immigrant from Yugoslavia who has completely anglocised. She dreams of a career as a musical performer, but those dreams have slowly faded over the years, to the point that she only barely bothers to show up for auditions and rarely with any preparation done beforehand. She works at a novelty Christmas store all year around. She resents both her domineering mother and her more obviously successful sister. Her life is, in other words, a mess. It has been a mess sense she recovered from a heart transplant a year earlier.

Near kiss.

Suddenly, as Christmas arrives, Kate bumps into a handsome young man named Tom. As played by Henry Golding, Tom is charming and earnest. He rides his bike everywhere, he knows the secrets of the city, he works with the homeless. He begins to guide a wayward Kate back to herself, encouraging her to consider other people and to start putting effort into what she does. There is a real sense, that with Tom’s help, Kate can becomes the person that she was always meant to be. She can completely heal, not only from the trauma of the heart transplant but from her own insecurities.

Of course, it’s also immediately obvious that this is no ordinary meet cute. If anything, it is a meet too cute. One of the biggest problems with Last Christmas is that the movie overplays a solid hand. Last Christmas awkwardly and consciously signposts that there’s something odd about Tom. He never interacts with other people. He dances out of the way of pedestrians who never acknowledge him. He is unreliable. He doesn’t have a mobile phone. All of this is in service of trying awkwardly to conceal a plot point laid bare in the opening line of the song from which the film takes its title.

Lightening the mood.

In some ways, this recalls the problems with Captain Marvel, another movie which awkwardly structured its plot so as to elevate a self-evident plot development to a pseudo-profound twist. There’s a sense that Last Christmas would be a stronger movie if it were less interested in playing games with its audience, and that the decision to treat certain plot elements as moments of dramatic pay-off leave a lot of the film spinning its wheels as the audience jogs well ahead.

With its plot effectively obscured by the narrative structure, Last Christmas doesn’t have a lot to fall back on. The film is largely a collection of familiar romantic comedy clichés, delivered with varying levels of skill. There are some solid recurring gags here, such at the quick flashes that explain how Kate came to find herself homeless. However, there are also a lot of “big” moments that don’t land, such as a first encounter between Kate and Tom that hinges on bird poop.

X-mas appeal.

To be fair, Last Christmas gets reasonably far on the charisma of its two leads. Clarke is pretty good at this sort of feel-good comedy, offering charming reactions and deadpan delivery. Golding offer an infectious earnestness and an up-and-at-them zeal that makes him very easy to watch. However, Last Christmas lacks a lot of the strong supporting elements that make for an above-average entry in the genre. The supporting cast are very thinly drawn, with actors like Michelle Yeoh and Emma Thompson stuck in roles that probably sounded better on paper than they do in execution.

Last Christmas is undoubtedly well-intentioned. Indeed, it’s hard to dislike a movie that is trying so hard to be nice. The film makes pretty effective use of its British setting. Feig is an avowed anglophile, and that shines through. Last Christmas populates its supporting cast with cameos from recognisable British comedic talent; Ingrid Oliver, Sue Perkins, Peter Serafinowicz, Rob Delaney. One character watches Blackadder. The film takes great pleasure in simply letting its leads wander through London. However, there’s a sense that there’s not a lot on which to hang this obvious affection for the city.

Let it skate.

Similarly, the film has an obvious social conscience. Homelessness is a major recurring theme throughout the film, to the point that the film’s one legitimate red herring is the faint possibility that Tom might himself somehow be revealed to be a homeless person. Similarly, the film is set in the recent past to allow for some awkward references to Brexit. The production team originally set the film in 2016, until they realised that meant that a movie called Last Christmas would end with George Michael’s death, so they shifted it to 2017.

While this is undoubtedly earnest and well-meant, it is a little awkward. These Brexit anxieties simmer through the film’s focus on Kate’s roots, with Kate’s mother confessing that she is worried about being sent back to her country of origin after making a life in London. However, these tensions only bubble to the surface during a single extended scene, one that seems to have been so carefully isolated from the rest of the film that it could be cut from the movie if it proved controversial in test screenings. There is nothing here that requires a 2017 setting, that wouldn’t play in 2018 or 2019.

Last Christmas desperately wants to be the perfect feel-good Christmas rom com. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have it wrapped up.

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