Paul Feig’s cheesy and intermittently charming “Last Christmas” asks its audience to suspend its disbelief early, opening the holiday-themed rom-com in a decidedly unhappy locale: Yugoslavia in the early ’90s. If the situation looks bleak, that’s by design, all the better for an unexpected — and very unlikely — twist of musical magic to liven things up in an otherwise drab small town church.
Things may be bad in a country on the verge of splitting apart, but they’ll get better once the church’s youth choir — led by the angel-voiced Kate (played by Madison Ingoldsby as a child) — bursts into an apparent local favorite: George Michael’s “Heal the Pain.” It’s a strange choice for any choir, but hardly an off-kilter pick for Feig’s latest film, which stuffs curious choices inside a grab-bag of otherwise warm rom-com tropes.
The formula is all there: There’s the salty leading lady (an appealing post-“Game of Thrones” Emilia Clarke, as adept at studio-manufactured romance as she is at big-budget fantasy), the smooth-talking love interest (Henry Golding, also appealing, even with significantly less screen time), a glossy location and seasonal flair, not to mention a big honking twist to keep it all chugging along to a heartwarming finale. Little about “Last Christmas” is that surprising, but as Hollywood continues to grapple with the idea that the rom-com still has legs and audiences are hungry for comfort food entertainment, it’s a welcome addition to a rebounding genre.
Like many rom-com women before her, Kate (Clarke) packs a secret, the kind she buries under bad decisions and worse behavior. At one point, a supporting character deems her “the most selfish woman in the world,” a designation she’d likely shrug off in the moment, only to feel the sting of it much later. Funny, brittle, and — thanks to Clarke’s supernova charm — much more lovable than she’d like anyone to acknowledge, Kate has spent the past year indulging in her worst desires. She drinks a lot, goes home with incompatible men, and attempts to pull it all together in the morning to give half-attention to her gig as an elf at a year-round Christmas shop, owned by no less than a tough-talking Michelle Yeoh.
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But Kate is hiding plenty of key stuff underneath her prickly exterior, like some serious family troubles (hinging on a spotty relationship with her mother, played by Emma Thompson, who also co-scripted the film) and a desire to sing professionally that she’s not nearly together enough to make happen. (The film itself is also not nearly together enough to keep much attention on Kate’s ambitions, even though they ultimately bookend the feature in zippy musical fashion.) Kate’s not looking for love, companionship, understanding — and, if she is, she’s looking for it in all the wrong places, which makes her the perfect heroine for the genre.
Surrounded by love stories and holiday cheer in a glossy, pre-Christmas London (even “Notting Hill” showed off more grime, and that’s a film that takes place mostly in a bookshop and at swanky press junkets), Kate is suddenly confronted with an appealing paramour. Tom (Golding) is handsome, sweet, kind (he volunteers at a soup kitchen!), and he doesn’t appear to be put out by Kate’s prickliness. In fact, he may even be able to use his good humor and charitable bent to turn Kate into a better person. As both Kate and the audience come to assume, he must be up to something.
As it turns out, so is the film. “Last Christmas” presents itself as a straightforward story — one that works well enough, even if it often feels like the cinematic equivalent of holiday candy — but there’s something else lurking just out of frame. Plenty of potential moviegoers have speculated about the possibility of a twist, thanks to the curious choice of both title and accompanying George Michael reference (last Christmas? what happened last Christmas?), and the film does eventually meander to a conclusion that provides some necessary answers. And yet, like many other (much smaller) elements of the film, even that bit is shoved inside “Last Christmas” as something of an afterthought.
From top to bottom, “Last Christmas” is shy about engaging with Its most substantial ingredients, from key elements about Kate (all that stuff about wanting to become a professional singer gets cast aside) to a cadre of thin supporting characters who come and go with little care. Even Kate’s years-long obsession with George Michael is never fully explained (fine), and is only ever utilized as a gimmick for the film’s musical moments and its cutesy title (obvious). Thompson and first-time screenwriter Bryony Kimmings’ script attempts to shove in some topical issues, including a truly strange injection of Brexit awareness and a more successful look at Kate’s complex family dynamics, but they arrive too late in a screenplay that has veered off track, chugging to an end that could have used significantly more finesse.
At least there’s Clarke, who deftly handles the rockiest of moments with charm and the right amount of edge for a character as complicated as Kate. “Last Christmas” might not be destined to enter the annals of classic holiday winners, but Kate is already a rom-com queen to be reckoned with. That’s worth celebrating on its own terms.
Universal Pictures will release “Last Christmas” in theaters on Friday, November 8.