REVIEW – ‘Last Christmas’ delivers everything you’re expecting and very little else

Deck the halls and break out the tinsel. Whether we like it or not, the festive season is once again upon us. And, this year, Universal Pictures is hoping you’ll journey out to the cinema for a fresh Christmas romantic comedy, instead of popping on Love Actually for the 87th time. No judgement on that. It should be required December viewing in every household.

With all the gooey schmaltz and fuzzy romance seen in every film of the yuletide genre, Last Christmas delivers everything you’re likely expecting and very little else. That’s not necessarily a slight on this breezily enjoyable and entirely charming feel-good flick. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll smile. You’ll swoon. You’ll want to hug a reindeer or something.

But, when all is said and done, Last Christmas is the cinematic equivalent of a Christmas present you explicitly asked your loved ones for. You know exactly what’s to be found underneath the wrapping, yet there’s still a slight twinge of disappointment not to find anything surprising hiding within. Even this film’s biggest surprises (and it tries for a few doozies) are as blindingly obvious as Rudolph’s shiny nose.

It’s Christmas time in London, circa 2017, and, much like it still is now, the U.K. is currently in the grips of Brexit chaos. Why exactly is Last Christmas inexplicably set two years ago? Your guess is as good as mine. The era is not too dissimilar to right now, so it’s never entirely clear why the film takes place here. Regardless, it’s here we meet disastrously unlucky Kate (an endearing Emilia Clarke), who’s just been unceremoniously booted from her apartment after ticking off yet another roommate.

Terribly clumsy and painfully inept, Kate has a nasty habit of unwittingly causing accidents (like inadvertently frying her flatmate’s pet fish with her hairdryer) wherever she turns. A wannabe singer/actress with a deep affection for George Michael (“Love me, love George.”), Kate has found herself working at the local Christmas store, overseen by the stern but magnanimous owner, curiously named Santa (a typically-sublime Michelle Yeoh).

Forced to dress as an elf and listen to the same inane Christmas music every day, Kate has lost the lust for life she once had before a mystery illness almost took her life nine months earlier. Much to the chagrin of her overbearing Yugoslavian mother, Adelia (Emma Thompson), Kate (or Katarina, as her mother insists on calling her) typically spends her evenings getting hammered before waking up next to last night’s random one night stand.

But a chance encounter with Tom (an achingly charming Henry Golding), a handsome stranger she fatefully spies from the window of the shop, offers Kate a fresh start. With his boundless energy and optimistic slant on the world, Tom is the total antithesis to Kate, challenging her pessimistic attitude at every turn. But when Tom starts to inexplicably disappear for days at a time, Kate can’t help but wonder if he’s just another of life’s eventual disappointments.

There’s a heavy George Michael push in the marketing for Last Christmas, almost as if this film is a pseudo jukebox musical, like we saw earlier this year with the Bruce Springsteen-loaded Blinded By the Light. As expected, the film’s soundtrack features all of Michael’s biggest hits plus a brand-new song, “This Is How (We Want You To Get High),” recorded before the late singer’s passing in 2016.

With a back-catalogue overloaded with smash singles, Michael’s music always provides great fodder for use in a film. However, outside of the titular track (which you hear at least eight or nine times in various incarnations), they each serve very little narrative purpose here, as if Thompson’s screenplay (co-written with Bryony Kimmings) was written well before it was decided to include Michael’s music as part of the final product.

We’ve seen so many great recent examples of songs being intelligently interwoven into a narrative, like Edgar Wright’s masterful musical fusions in Baby Driver or James Gunn’s retro-tastic soundtracks for both Guardians of the Galaxy films. But that’s simply not the case here, with Michael’s tracks feeling like they’ve merely been plonked into the film purely because our protagonist happens to be a big fan. Strangely, after revealing her love for the musician early on in the film, Kate barely references Michael again until the film’s finale where she performs the titular song.

Similarly, it’s almost a stretch to call this a Christmas movie in the purest sense, with the holiday season providing little more than the backdrop to the storyline, choosing instead to focus its plotlines elsewhere. Sure, there are seasonal decorations everywhere (especially in Santa’s elaborate store featuring gorgeous production design by Gary Freeman) and snowflakes to flutter around every romantic scene. But these elements are almost superfluous to the overall film.

Instead, Thompson and Kimmings decide to focus their screenplay on far more pertinent topics, namely mortality, family, immigration, and, of course, love. By offering a lead character in a funk after overcoming a life-threatening illness, Last Christmas provides an interesting flip on the usual post-illness narrative. When offered a second chance at life, people are expected to take that opportunity by the horns. But Kate follows the opposite route, leading to a wasteful life of merely plateauing along.

It’s for this very reason she’s so terribly disconnected from her adoring family, as she consistently keeps them at an arm’s distance to avoid the judgment she ultimately needs. Kate dismisses her mother’s constant calls and maternal desires to help her flailing daughter, misguidedly criticising Adelia for seeming “happy” only while she was ill. But it’s clear the reason she appeared so pleased her daughter was sick is that she finally felt needed by her distant child again.

After fleeing Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Kate’s parents lost everything they once had, particularly her father Ivan’s (Boris Isakovic) ability to practice law. Without the finances to fund his retraining, Ivan is forced to work as a cab driver, offering a glimpse into the sacrifices made by immigrants in the hopes of a better life for their children. It’s entirely why there’s so much friction between Kate and her parents, as they see their daughter wasting the life provided by their forfeitures.

For all its intentions on highlighting the immigrant experience, Last Christmas isn’t entirely concerned with exploring this idea too deeply. The spectre of Brexit looms over this entire film, as it occasionally offers examples of the outwardly racist behaviour of pro-leave British citizens. But these feel like cheap ploys to make the film more important and relevant than it ultimately is. It’s intriguing to see a film set in the U.K. during these turbulent times, but its earnest attempts to say something on the matter feel far too forced.

In saying that, you came to Last Christmas for a gooey love story and a gooey love story is entirely what you’re served. With all the familiar tropes of every romantic comedy for the past few decades, the film delivers every moment you’re anticipating. The first fateful meeting. The peculiar first date that somehow becomes something magical. The frustration when he lets her down. The hope that he might just be “the one” after the first kiss. It’s all here. And it’s all very lovely.

It’s ultimately best to just give yourself over to something so saccharinely sweet and decidedly delightful. As a romantic pairing, Clarke and Golding have terrific chemistry together, crafting a love story you achingly want to see succeed. The festive season setting provides the chance for Kate to offer plenty of “bah, humbug” attitude to balance out Tom’s gushing positivity, making the perfect mismatched yin/yang coupling this genre practically invented.

We know Clarke can play the fierce action roles with her eyes closed, but Last Christmas offers her another chance to showcase her range, especially for those who didn’t bother with the underrated romantic dramedy Me Before You. As a character genuinely at a crossroads with her life, Clarke is perfectly cast as a young woman hiding deep-seated pain with a grumbly and lackadaisical attitude. Much like Kristen Wiig’s Annie in Bridesmaids, Kate is a character likely to initially frustrate an audience, yet in Clarke’s endearing hands, you can’t help but cheer for her.

As the dashing love interest, Golding is once again ridiculously adorable, providing all the charm and charisma he’s becoming so well known for. Tom’s zest for living and hopeful attitude opens Kate’s eyes to a more purposeful life, pushing her to care about more than just herself and finally see how truly lucky she is to be alive. If nothing else, Last Christmas certainly makes a concerted effort for an audience to seize every day, especially while the world is currently on fire.

In news that likely won’t come as a shock, Yeoh threatens to steal the entire film with a delightful supporting performance that elevates your overall experience. Playing somewhat against type, Yeoh offers an incredibly warm and inviting character as the Christmas-loving shop owner, boosted by a quirky love story of her own. But, as always, she still has the ability to rip someone to shreds, giving Kate a much-needed dose of reality after she makes a careless workplace mistake.

Thompson is typically wonderful as the beleaguered mother who desperately wants nothing more than to take care for her two adult children. Despite eldest sister Marta (Lydia Leonard) being the far more successful daughter, it’s clear Kate is Adelia’s favourite, causing constant friction between the two siblings. Hiding a secret of her own, Marta is consistently frustrated by Kate, offering plenty of familial drama that will feel achingly relevant to an audience.

With a timely reminder of the importance of family and a glowing reminder of the power of love, Last Christmas is overflowing with heart, and lord knows we need some of that during this time of year. Does it all wrap up a little too neatly in the end? Of course, it does. Is it all just a little too sickly sweet to be anything truly authentic? Absolutely. But this is a romantic comedy and thems the rules.

By sticking closely to the genre’s strengths, Last Christmas takes the safe passage to your heart, and there’s nothing entirely wrong with that. Not every film needs to be something that shatters a well-established genre, but if you’re expecting anything entirely new here, you may be disappointed. Whether this film will become a regular December classic remains to be seen. For this year, at least, it might save you from tears, as well as eliciting quite a few as well.

Distributor: Universal Pictures
Cast: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Emma Thompson, Boris Isakovic, Rebecca Root, Lydia Leonard
Director: Paul Feig
Producers: Paul Feig, Jessie Henderson, David Livingstone, Emma Thompson
Screenplay: Emma Thompson, Bryony Kimmings
Cinematography: John Schwartzman
Production Design: Gary Freeman
Costume Design: Renee Ehrlich Kalfus
Music: Theodore Shapiro

Editing: Brent White
Running Time: 103 minutes
Release Date: 8th November 2019 (Australia)

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