It's all kind of right there in the concept of Last Christmas. No, no, not the plot, which is muddy and overdone but basically the standard holiday season romantic boilerplate: she's a Scrooge, he's guileless and charming, and he eventually forces her to open up to the spirit of loving and giving and so on and et cetera. The wrinkles in this case are a bit weirder than usual, but the point of the thing is clear. No, I mean the concept of naming a film Last Christmas after the 1984 Wham! single, the second-worst of all the many godawful pop music Christmas songs to have become seasonal standards in despite their absolute lack of any aesthetic merit.* Last Christmas the movie is very much in the spirit of "Last Christmas" the song: tinny, trite emotions, style that's somehow both garish and bland simultaneously, and a shrill insistence that oh how very much fun we're having despite it being slightly miserable in how much it's mugging for attention. The movie even has the presence of mind to introduce a running joke about how tacky and ubiquitous the song is, though this does not keep it from using a performance of the song as its big emotional climax, because fucking obviously it does.

To get to that leadenly foreordained point, we're going to get to know Kate, a Yugoslavian immigrant played by Emilia Clarke, which is a real god-damned bit of casting. Kate was terribly sick a while back, and though she's physically recovered, she's been a bit awful for the last year, avoiding her family and sleepwalking her way through her job at a year-round Christmas decoration shop run by a bubbly woman calling herself Santa (Michelle Yeoh). It speaks to Kate's intelligence and overall tolerability that she makes it clear, somewhat late in the film, that she thought "Santa" was her boss's given name. Anyway, Kate is a right proper grinch, and she's about to have her heart increased three sizes by Tom (Henry Golding), an extremely handsome oddball who keeps popping up at random moments to pester Kate into being happier and not pushing away everybody in the world who tries to look out for her well-being. This involves, mostly, getting over her annoyance with her mother (Emma Thompson, who's also partially responsible for the screenplay, which is genuinely incomprehensible to me), being less obnoxious to her sister (Lydia Leonard), and waking up to actually do her job for a change. And also to stop trying to drink herself into oblivion.

It is a profoundly unimaginative scenario, both in the broad strokes and the particulars; just about the only thing that comes as even a little bit of a surprise in Last Christmas is that it's not primarily a romantic comedy, but more of a comedy of life-improvement in which meeting a hot guy is the catalyst. This turns out to be strategic as much as anything, because the film has pointlessly decided to give Tom a Secret, and it is an unnecessarily Dumb Secret on top of it, and if the film was too much about the romantic relationship, it would be necessary at a certain point to admit that the whole thing was a ridiculous house of cards. But part of me likes it; it's the point where the film tips its hand and admits that it was never actually about the real world or real humans, but just weird caricatures that are at least eccentric, if never exactly funny. This is all ushered into being by Paul Feig, who has never done such bland work as a director; his strength is in the crass, sardonic humor that typifies the early parts of the movie, when Kate is at her most untethered, but he's not much good at breathing real feeling into the more sentimental later parts, and it ends up just being cloying.

Thank God for those unfunny eccentrics, because that's pretty much as far as Last Christmas goes in having any real personality at all. It is, if nothing else, a peculiar movie. The Christmas store is a bizarre hodgepodge of heinously tasteless bric-a-brac that goes so far in on theming that it resembles a theme park attraction more than a gift shop specializing in holiday decor.โ€  Thompson plays her nagging mother as a dumbfounding cartoon version of a Balkan grandmother, in direct contrast to the cozy realism of most of the film, with its very physical, grounded vision of London. As for why the characters are Yugoslavian at all, that's just to facilitate a completely terrible Brexit scene that itself exists not to say anything about Brexit whatsoever, but just to provide a moment for Kate to self-actualise (this is also why it includes an immediately-forgotten subplot about how her sister is hiding her sexuality from their parents). It's all so much mish-mash, but at least it means that people like Thompson and Yeoh get to have some fun doing big comic nonsense.

The anchor for all of this is presumably meant to be Kate, and her growth from out-of-control trainwreck into stable, helpful, loving member of humanity (it's also presumably meant to be her flirtation with Tom, though the film goes out of its way to prevent that from being an actual possibility), giving a thread of sentimentality that grounds the contrivance. Clarke's not nearly enough of an actor to sell this, unfortunately; she's firmly stuck at the level of playing the surface level of all the dialogue and the scenes. This is fine in a sitcommy way; when Kate needs to be amusingly horrible, she's amusing; when she's meant to tug at our heartstrings, they are thus tugged. But she's not doing much of anything to tie the performance together: the desperate fear of mortality that gets stated every now and then doesn't animate any of Clarke's scenes where it's not the specific, explicit point of that scene. Since the film's only real goal is to work as a character sketch, having a weakly-expressed character arc is a pretty fatal shortcoming. I admit that even with a real barnburner of a central performance, I doubt that Last Christmas would have been more than a sweet, likable, and very forgettable little snip of a movie, but as it is, it's not even that: it's just a busy muddle that doesn't pursue any idea for longer than five minutes, and doesn't have nearly enough personality to overcome its unending cascade of clichรฉs.




*The very worst, incontestably, is Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime" from 1979, and I imagine it will remain so until its replacement inaugurates the Apocalypse.




โ€ My very first job was working at a year-round Christmas gift shop; if I'd been obliged to wear a goofy costume like the one Kate is saddled with, I swear, I'd have called OSHA.