Released: 7th November
Seen: 2nd December
2016, as a year, is generally remembered as a total dumpster fire where all forms of joy and happiness went to die. Entire nations turned on themselves and decided to do objectively stupid things like leave a certain European union or elect a pumpkin man that was assembled in 2013, had already begun to rot and somehow gained racist sentience (with that one sentence, I do believe I’ve gotten rid of the exact kind of reader one would hope to get rid of) and on top of that it seemed like every other day a celebrity that we loved died, culminating in the shocking death of George Michael on Christmas Day. Yes, there were more shocking deaths after him, but I need to save those for when the time comes to talk about the next Star Wars film. Anyway, naturally with a legend like George Michael there was a whole back catalogue of music that someone was inevitably going to take and turn into a tribute to the late performer. You would hope that they would make a film that was as joyful and cheeky as he was, something to celebrate his life… instead, they made a film that is the definition of saccharine and looted George’s pockets for discarded songs.
We spend the entire fun of Last Christmas following Kate (Emilia Clarke) who is everything one expects the main character in a British Christmas film to be… she’s snarky, drunk, but lovable as hell. She works in a shop that sells Christmas decorations all year round, a truly sound business model, and ends up bumping into a man named Tom (Henry Golding). Because Tom looks just like Henry Golding, naturally Kate finds herself smitten by him and opens up about her family, her trauma related to her recent heart transplant and how she feels like her talent is being wasted because she’s also an accomplished singer who constantly goes on auditions. Through a series of intermittent hijinks, Kate slowly learns to be a not-snarky not-drunk nice person who people want to be around for reasons other than to witness the inevitable trainwreck up close… OH, and she is super into George Michael and the only reason that matters is so they can play the song Last Christmas multiple times in various arrangements, which isn’t at all a clue to the ending of this story that you have probably already guessed if you guessed the dumbest ending possible with the information I’ve given you… FA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA
The plot for this film is all over the place and none of the places it goes are interesting. If it’s not being horrifically cliché, to the point where I think most people called the ending based on the trailer, then it’s going off on little detours without actually saying anything about them. The film happens to be set during the worst year ever and specifically just after the Brexit vote happened. Kate’s mother Petra (Emma Thompson) is a legal Yugoslavian immigrant who is worried that the Brexit situation might mean that she’ll have to leave the country… and that is where the plotline ends. It’s one scene of them seeing the protests on the TV and saying with words that they are frightened, but then nothing happens. No one has a heart-warming moment presenting Petra with her citizenship papers to make her understand she belongs here, there is no magical last-minute reversing of the decision, there is no closure like one expects in films. It’s just brought up and nothing’s done about it. This happens even more egregiously when Kate is on a bus and there is a random act of racism that happens and instead of it being a moment where maybe the people on the bus could rally around the affected minorities and kick the racist’s ass or even just have some form of karmic justice, they just let the racism happen and then Kate talks to the couple and that’s how you cure the racism. Seriously, I’m the last person to be upset by politics in films but if you’re going to bring it up, do something with it. Maybe then this film would’ve had an identity, which it desperately needed.
What it lacks in identity, it makes up for with its two leads who both had hard jobs to do. Emilia Clarke had to use this role to shake off the image of Daenerys from Game of Thrones and show her range and oh god damn does she ever. She sings, she jokes, she’s got so much joyful energy in this movie that if the story had been better and the jokes had actually been good then she would’ve killed it. It really gives me hope to see her do more comedies and more sarcastic drunken roles like this because she clearly had a lot of fun and managed to make it work. Henry Golding had a very different job to do, he needed to prove that him being the charming leading man in Crazy Rich Asians wasn’t a fluke and oh my god did he prove it. He turned Tom into a character who could talk someone into walking over broken glass with just a sweet smile and a playful spin. He’s a sheer delight whenever he’s on-screen and proves that he’s the best leading man we have in cinema right now. He is to this era what Hugh Grant was to the 90s, a charming funny man who can easily be the love interest in any film. Together? Holy crap the scenes they have together have so much chemistry I’m amazing the celluloid didn’t melt, they bounce off each other so effortlessly and even though they share nothing more intimate than a kiss, their relationship is believable from the start until… well, that ending. That ending tho.
The ending of this film is truly just awful and while I’m not going to spoil it, if you think of what the worst ending could be with this concept then you’re probably right and yes, it’s played badly. Most things in this film aren’t exactly done well, everything feels rushed and haphazard and like they’re trying to do something cheery and interesting and progressive but end up short on all fronts. There are some things they do that make me happy, like having Kate’s sister Marta (Lydia Leonard) as a lesbian. The catch is, we only learn she’s a lesbian right at the moment when Kate outs her to their family. It’s such a shock when she does it that it actually took me a moment to realise what she’d done, it’s never implied this would be a problem and Marta never hints that she’s like that but… seriously, in this film with George Michael music, there’s an outing scene. Sure, Kate eventually apologises for it but then Marta is the one to basically go “It’s alright, I’m sure you had your reasons” even though she has the absolute right to slap Kate hard in the face.
Speaking of a hard slap in the face, let’s talk about how much corpse looting goes on here. George Michael is used because his one Christmas song gives them a location and the concept of a heart transplant and with his recent death, it’s a marketable name. His songs turn up randomly for no reason, except Last Christmas but that turns up because it’s Christmas and everyone plays that song at this time of year. They never tie into the plot or anything, the main character is a George Michael fan but it doesn’t in any way reflect who she is. There’s not even a reason for the music to turn up, not even something as silly as Eli Stone’s “He has a tumour that makes him hear George Michael songs” it’s just… it’s pointless. It’s casually using the memories of a beloved dead entertainer to attract attention to an average Christmas movie that would’ve been lost in the shuffle otherwise. You could literally remove every George Michael reference in this film and it wouldn’t change a damn thing, except maybe Kate’d need to sing a different song at the end because of course, the film needs to end on a group singalong version of Last Christmas.
The sad thing about Last Christmas is that it has all the elements that I like. The leads are charming, Emma Thompson is (usually) a great writer, Paul Feig is a great director, I love a good Christmas movie and we have music by one of the greatest artists of the last 50 years. There’s inclusive characters, progressive politics and genuine heart… but none of it blends together quite right. It’s too sickeningly sweet for the most part, hard to connect to and just doesn’t work when everything’s been put together. It’s the kind of movie that you’d see played at 2:30 on Christmas Day that’d be interrupted halfway through for a live cross to a local parade where a float caught fire. It’s just not good, not memorable and not worth anyone’s time.