Last Christmas is the latest film from director Paul Fieg (Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters, A Simple Favor), and was written by Bryony Kimmings and Academy Award winner Emma Thompson. It stars Emilia Clarke as Kate, a young woman who works at a local Christmas shop that’s open all year long. Kate’s life is an absolute mess, partly by self-infliction and partially because she’s simply had a lot of bad luck in life; behaving with such reckless abandon due to the poor hand life has dealt her, she’s managed to get herself kicked out of nearly every place she ever stayed, living out of a suitcase most of the time. One day, however, her life is changed when Henry Golding shows up as Tom, a young man who volunteers at the homeless shelter, asking if he might take her for a stroll some evening. Kate objects at first, as the only experience they’d shared to that point was him being present when a bird pooped in her eye, but after some persistence, she reluctantly agrees to let him get to know her. As their relationship begins to take shape, we get to learn more about Kate, and why she finds it so difficult to make or keep friends; she struggles with taking care of herself, and her family life is dysfunctional, to say the least. But perhaps with Tom by her side, as both helper and inspiration, she can learn to better herself enough to help others once more. The film also stars Michelle Yeoh, Emma Thompson, and Margaret Clunie.
I have a complicated relationship with Paul Fieg’s work; some of it I find very entertaining (like his Melissa McCarthy film, Spy), much of it I find overrated (Bridesmaids, A Simple Favor), and some of it’s not bad but it’s not really as good as it could be with maybe a few more runs at the script (Ghostbusters). Last Christmas finds itself squarely in between those last two camps, as it’s certainly not unwatchable, but is definitely somewhat of a mess for much of its runtime, which is saying something, considering the film runs barely over an hour and a half. For the majority of the film, the editing is pretty bad, with many shots just appearing out of nowhere when there’s absolutely no reason to have cut from the shot before, immediately betraying that either Fieg didn’t know what he was attempting to communicate or that those specific shots were definitely re-shoots/budget shots because they couldn’t get multiple characters on screen at the same time. The first half of the film is jumbled, seemingly unable to find its footing until Henry Golding shows up to help it along, but even he can’t fix the uneven, occasionally bizarre editing choices, and the way the film chooses to handle its pacing leaves something to be desired. Much of the time, I found myself wondering when the actual movie could begin, only to discover we were halfway through the show already.
One of the selling points in the marketing for Last Christmas was that it was inspired by and features the music of the legendary George Michael, which concerned me for a couple of reasons. For one, any piece of film marketing that tries to sell you on an element of the project not directly associated with its narrative isn’t trying to sell you on the film itself, but rather on one element the film contains, usually as a gimmick, something one could liken to 3D or 4D “aroma-scope” (yes, that was a thing at one point – it failed horribly). More importantly, however, the music is often just part of the soundtrack, and doesn’t factor into the film’s narrative at all, even in some small fashion. Luckily, Last Christmas avoids that second pitfall by actually giving its main character a connection to the musical icon, although it’s not quite enough to save the film, even if it does factor into a fun little twist in the storytelling during the back half of the movie. It’s not a twist that makes much sense upon reflection, no, but it is one that could end up surprising some audiences less familiar with these stories or with going to the movies at all.
The greatest weakness of the film, however (and it breaks my heart to say this), is actually in the writing. Christmas movies of late haven’t had the greatest track record when it comes to sharp scripts or fun stories, but even some of those have more believable dialogue for cinematic delivery than Last Christmas does. There are so many moments when it was so incredibly clear that the actors were working their asses off attempting to improvise their way through a scene, only for the scene to cut yet again to another moment, and suddenly the movie had started again. Improvisation isn’t a bad thing on a film set; in fact, it can lead to some of moviemaking’s finest moments (like The Dark Knight’s hospital controls sequence or when they apparently improv’d like 70% of Iron Man), but it all has to be in service of the story at hand. These dialogue sequences with very quick writing that seem somewhat unscripted don’t feel like they’re really in service of anything except the jokes that Paul Fieg wants to tell – jokes which, in case you’re wondering, couldn’t land if they got a pass at every runway at JFK. The film definitely thinks it’s hilarious, but I’m not convinced any of the test audiences actually laughed without forcing it. There are one or two gags that land well enough, but other than that, I don’t think I’ve heard less effecting comedy in a film this year. I’ve heard less effortful, more irritating work, but even that lesser quality material had an effect of at least making me feel pissed off about. This “comedy” didn’t make me feel anything close to laughter, or in truth, anything at all.
Lest you believe I absolutely 100% hated the film, though, now comes the time to focus on its positive elements, one of which is its performers. It goes without saying that Henry Golding and Emilia Clarke are a terrific on-screen pair, and they do have great chemistry given the lackluster material they’ve each been given to work with, but most of the other actors in the film are also quite good here, even if (as in Emma Thompson’s case) they don’t get as much screen-time as we’re used to seeing from stars of that caliber and reputation. It also helps that while the film’s central premise is really the only good thing narratively that it has going for it, it does get better as it goes on. Each act improves on the one before it, and despite a pretty rough first half, the film does have some fairly emotional scenes, and at least one that feels surprisingly intimate and sweet; there are other ones that will genuinely move you and some that are just sweet to experience, but when those other ones come in, they usually aren’t very effective. It’s not a total dumpster fire or anything, but there is definitely a little bit of a smolder coming from the pages of this script.
In the end, Last Christmas has its moments, but doesn’t quite end up as much more than the sum of its parts, and its parts are already pretty flimsy. The cast does solid work given what they had to work with, but the movie itself is mostly a jumbled, uneven mess, like the pine leaves falling off an actual Christmas tree, and while the George Michael tie-in was somewhat clever, it ultimately doesn’t serve much narrative purpose, except to provide a “gotcha” moment for audiences to pretend to be surprised by. My bar for this film was already pretty low, yet somehow it only managed to move that bar only a single rung higher. Paul Fieg, please pick a good script next time.
I’m giving “Last Christmas” a 4.3/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.