'Last Christmas': Film Review

Refuses to be pigeon-holed, for better and worse.
11/8/2019

Emilia Clarke plays a woman getting unsolicited life lessons from a handsome stranger (Henry Golding) in Paul Feig's holiday-themed romance.

It's at the point when two mutually infatuated strangers break into an empty skating rink, gliding gracefully around while the rink's sound system magically plays something appropriate, that a movie lover of a certain age and background might realize that Paul Feig's Last Christmas isn't a strangely off-target Yuletide romance: It's a gender-flipped remake of 1980's Olivia Newton-John vehicle Xanadu.

Emilia Clarke plays the troubled artist who has lost touch with her own gifts; Henry Golding is the mysterious, inspirational dreamboat who, instead of giving our heroine his phone number, simply shows up whenever he's most needed; and the late George Michael, unable to compose a suite of new pop songs as Electric Light Orchestra did, has provided an entire back catalog for the filmmakers to choose from.

The similarities may or may not end there. Last Christmas is not as radiantly, lovably bad as Xanadu, though there may be some impressionable young viewers (especially those with serious crushes on Clarke and/or Golding) who will remember it fondly four decades from now. It's a misfire by just about any measure, but it earns some warm feelings for its determination not to be like anything else currently in circulation. Sure, it concludes with the obligatory British rom-com singalong; but that's the most ordinary thing in this peculiar, heartfelt romance about learning to move past trauma and finding meaning in helping others.

Opening credits inform us that Last Christmas, written by Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings, is inspired by the Michael holiday classic of the same name. Linger on that tidbit at your peril: Midway through the film, as you're still wondering what doomed romance Clarke's Kate is supposed to be getting over here (there isn't one), you may suddenly understand the bad-pun liberties the script has taken with Michael's lovesick lyrics; and if you do, you'll likely guess things the pic doesn't yet want you to know. Consider taking things at face value — or looking for more Xanadu parallels — instead.

Kate is a between-apartments Londoner who has burned nearly every bridge in her life — careless with others' trust, she's couch surfing with the few remaining friends who'll put her up while going on auditions for singing gigs she's not prepared to get. She works in a year-round Christmas store, wearing an elf costume and hawking tacky ornaments for the boss (Michelle Yeoh) she knows only as "Santa."

To her horror, she may soon have to move back in with her family, finally answering the countless messages left by her suffocating mother Petra (Thompson). Petra is an immigrant who fled Yugoslav wars around 1999, and is still haunted by those memories. Her effect on her daughter is summed up by the ringtone the latter has assigned to her phone calls: Fine Young Cannibals' 1989 hit "She Drives Me Crazy."

One day at work, Kate notices a handsome man standing in front of the shop. She goes out to meet Golding's Tom, who's staring up at a rare bird on a ledge. Quickly put off by his ostentatious sense of wonder, she shoots him down when he asks her to go for a walk: "I'm busy, you're weird, bye."

But Tom keeps showing up, swinging by on his bike until she goes wandering with him. Behavior Feig and Golding seemingly intend to be charming may come off to some viewers as weirdly condescending: Tom keeps insisting that Kate "look up" to see the things she walks by every day — a mildly amusing bit of street art, say, or the narrowest alley in London. (Clearly, the city's tourist bureau had no input into the script.) He chides her about the lousy food she eats, tells her she should ditch her distracting phone as he has, and twirls around when she might rather have him stare meaningfully into her eyes. He doesn't tell her to smile more, but he might as well.

Now and then, he ghosts her, forcing her to hunt for him at the homeless shelter where he volunteers. (Well, of course he feeds the hungry when he's not making people feel guilty about under-appreciating their hometown.)

Kate does wind up, after some especially careless drunken misbehavior, having to move back home. Mom isn't nearly as bad as everyone makes her out to be, but she is something of a one-note downer, fond of breaking into dirge-like folk songs from the old country and worrying that Brexit signals a return to hard times. (The script takes a couple of opportunities to show sympathy for the targets of anti-immigrant anger.) The high-energy domestic angst will amuse some viewers, but it's a distraction from the more credibly screwed-up aspects of Clarke's performance: Kate's a wreck for her own reasons, and even when the character is feigning obliviousness about the havoc she wreaks, the actress takes her lost-ness seriously.

Kate is puzzled by Tom's take-it-slow approach to their budding romance, and is perhaps sublimating some desires when she starts volunteering at the shelter when he's not around — busking in her elf costume to raise money for the charity's Christmas pageant. At least she has Michael's songs to comfort her. Though it pegs her as a fan in opening scenes, the movie does little to explain the ubiquity of his music here; given how well the songs suit most (if not all) of the places they're used, perhaps there's no need to explain. The Hugh Grant/Drew Barrymore film Music and Lyrics is more interesting for viewers fascinated with the phenomenon of Michael's pop stardom (even if it creates a fictional stand-in for the singer), but Last Christmas does justice to many of the songs themselves, and not in an overbearing, Mamma Mia! kind of way.

Little can be said about the final act without stealing the film's thunder. But a viewer who hasn't been put off by one thing or another in the pic's first hour may well go along with its last left turn. Those who do will be rewarded with Clarke's vaguely Amy Winehouse-ish rendition of the title track — horn section, elf costume and all.

Production companies: Calamity Films, Feigco Entertainment
Distributor: Universal
Cast: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Emma Thompson
Director: Paul Feig
Screenwriters: Emma Thompson, Bryony Kimmings
Producers: Erik Baiers, Jessie Henderson, David Livingstone, Emma Thompson
Executive producers: Sarah Bradshaw
Director of photography: John Schwartzman
Production designer: Gary Freeman
Costume designer: Renee Ehrlich Kalfus
Editor: Brent White
Composer: Theodore Shapiro
Casting directors: Alice Searby, Fiona Weir

Rated PG-13, 102 minutes