Everyone gets along merrily in “Last Christmas” (2019), director Paul Feig and co-writer Emma Thompson’s holiday trifle inspired by the bittersweet George Michael song of the same name. Setting the tone, Kate (Emilia Clarke) has a nice conversation with a guy in a pub, then we smash cut to the next morning where she’s still looking gorgeous in the guy’s bed but – silly Kate – the guy’s girlfriend shows up. And it’s not to be; but oh well: On with the 20-something’s flighty, horrible-but-actually-delightful rom-com life.
“Last Christmas” gains more substance by the time it’s over, but I wish it had higher ambitions from the start – either as a hilarious comedy or as a deeper family or relationship drama. We see small conflicts, but none are more than skin deep. Kate’s Croatian parents, Petra and Ivan (Thompson and Boris Isakovic) don’t get along like they used to, and Petra in particular doesn’t yet feel at home in London. Sister Marta (Lydia Leonard), meanwhile, resents that Kate is the golden child.
Problems exist in this Pollyanna world, but they are easily solved. The movie’s one jerk (on screen for only a moment) tells a couple of Croatians on a bus to “go back where (they) came from.” Kate apologizes on behalf of all Londoners and all is right again. Some of Kate’s family issues are solved even more easily than that, with the film in one case forgetting the problem exists.
“Last Christmas” is slathered in pretty things. Clarke (“Terminator Genisys”) and Henry Golding (“A Simple Favor”) shine as bright as the Christmas lights, as delightfully as the Michael songs that pepper the soundtrack. Golding pairs nicely with Clarke; we would automatically recognize Tom as a guardian angel in any other movie, except that so many people (and places) are angelic in this one.
Even the homeless shelter doesn’t look so bad. There’s no sense of threat about London or the strangers Kate meets. Even when the Christmas décor store – where Kate works as an “elf” for Michelle Yeoh’s “Santa” — is vandalized, we’re assured it’s “just some kids” pulling a prank.
The comedy is light and inoffensive, but never funny. One attempt at a riotous gag comes from the translation of a Croatian curse and the subsequent use of “dick” and “penis” in a family dinner table conversation. I usually go for this type of humor, but it lands in too expected fashion here.
A revelation that kicks off the final act ratchets “Last Christmas” up a notch, even though it initially struck me as a weird way to tie the song’s lyrics into the plot. It leads to a twist in the Kate-Tom relationship that I didn’t see coming, although I bet plenty of viewers did; the clues are there.
When Kate sings a cheerful rendition of “Last Christmas” at a fundraiser concert, it’s the film’s best moment, but just as expected as everything else. The pure prettiness of cute, elf-garbed Kate beautifully singing a nice song washes away the mediocrity of much of the yarn up to that point, and makes it hard to be a Grinch.
But with so much talent in front of and behind the camera, and such a lavish setting, it’s a shame the conflicts are as thin as the paper they’re written on. “Last Christmas” had potential to be great rather than merely above average, but gave it away.