I don’t expect much out of my holiday movies. A bit of cheer, a bit of romance, maybe a nice little cry (happy tears!) just before the credits roll.
In all these aspects, Last Christmas delivers perfectly well. Directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Spy) and written by Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings, the story of a cynical Brit who works in a year-round holiday shop was inspired by the now classic Wham! song of the same name, and in fact the band (and George Michael generally) play a pivotal role in the narrative (well, the soundtrack, at least).
With “Game of Thrones” and Daenerys Targaryen now firmly behind her, Emilia Clarke is Kate, that aforementioned Brit brat who can’t show up to work on time, doesn’t have a place of her own to crash and is, we soon learn, now healthy though she used to be very sick. With what, we have no idea just yet, but it’s still early. She works at that Christmas shop owned by Santa (Michelle Yeoh, who is not at all the picture of what that name typically conjures, but go with it), a gaudy, tacky place that manages to keep the lights on by selling the silliest holiday junk one can imagine. But it’s cheery enough, and Kate’s uniform includes a faux fur collar and elf shoes complete with curled-up toes and a little pom-pom at the end of each.
While half-heartedly dusting the various ornaments and displays one afternoon, Kate eyes a dashing young man just outside the store (nestled in the heart of the bustling Covent Garden) and she’s off. Dashing young men are just what the doctor ordered, apparently, as Kate cycles through them the way Santa (the jolly old man, not the shopkeeper) makes his way through a plate full of gingerbread cookies: in quick succession and with little mess left behind. This particular young man is Tom, played by the truly dashing Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians) with so much charm you’ll want to check that you still have your watch and keys before leaving the theater. Tom is everything Kate isn’t: generous and kind, optimistic and observant. He’s always looking up, catching the details and moments so many of us miss with our faces in our phones.
In fact, he doesn’t even have his phone (he locked it up in a cupboard to keep from scrolling it all day; see that? That’s the sheen of his halo…) so Kate has to rely on just bumping into Tom again in order to foster this budding crush of hers. Getting to know Kate and watching this romance bloom is nothing groundbreaking at all; in fact, it’s quite formulaic. At one point, I was anticipating the next scene before it actually played out on screen. But that’s just fine. It’s fun and funny, as Clarke, Golding and the gang lean into their cliches with verve, emoting so boldly they might as well be winking right at us from up there.
Thompson takes a supporting role in her own story, playing Kate’s long-suffering immigrant mother (the family fled from war-torn Yugoslavia at the turn of the millennium), a woman Kate keeps telling us is boorish and horrible but who just seems…annoying? There’s an attempt at adding some depth to Last Christmas‘s proceedings by placing the story in the midst of Brexit and mounting tensions around “the other,” but this and other secondary storylines really only serve as a conduit to Kate’s eventual, and inevitable, transformation.
Eventually, we do learn just what illness Kate’s been referring to, and just as the film gears up for a big third act reveal, we’re really feeling for her and rooting for her and Tom to make it. But something’s gotta give, or what else would we be doing here? If you’ve been paying just a smidge of attention thus far in the film, you’ll see the big twist as one big eye-roll of a reveal. But if, like me, you’ve gone ahead and given in to the whimsy of the holiday spirit and the giddy chemistry between Clarke and Golding, it could just be a whopper of a key change. Either way, it sets up the most important part of a holiday movie: the touching, slightly sappy ending.
In that department, Last Christmas delivers; part of Kate’s transformation involves volunteering at a homeless shelter and, tapping into her aspirations to be a musical theater actor, she organizes a holiday benefit show for the center. I’m trying not to spoil very much for you here, but it’s probably fine to confirm that yes, Last Christmas features a full-band performance of that title song. It’s all wrapped up in a message of doing better, taking care of each other and living this one life we’re given to its fullest.
Is all of that endearing, season-appropriate sentiment wrapped up in a film that’s edited to within an inch of its life and populated with characters that are about as nuanced as your drunk uncle at Christmas dinner? Yep, it sure is. I admit, I kept waiting for Last Christmas to elevate to the hallowed ground occupied by contemporary holiday romcoms like Love, Actually, The Holiday or The Family Stone. (Those last two aren’t exactly great movies in their own right, but they at least earn their emotional pay-offs.)
As someone who will be putting up her Christmas tree within the week and who’s been listening to holiday music since before Halloween, I’m willing to cut any new festive film plenty of slack for the sake of the season. Last Christmas needs more than its fair share; there’s a lot of fancy wrapping here, with sparkling ribbons and bows. Just try not to think about the fact that what’s inside the box may not be exactly what you’d wished for.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!