' ' Cinema Romantico: Happy Christmas

Monday, August 11, 2014

Happy Christmas

“I don’t just want to do the same stuff.” This is what Jenny (Anna Kendrick) unconvincingly says to a small batch of partygoers in someone’s apartment. She then promptly proceeds to do the same stuff – getting blackout drunk, refusing to awaken when stirred, needing her brother Jeff (Joe Swanberg) to literally carry her home. We know it’s the same stuff because Jeff and his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) express frustration that Jenny is repeating ancient behavioral patterns even though they have graciously opened their Chicago home to her when she has nowhere else to go. And so “Happy Christmas” documents an age-old refrain, one in which a semi-adult struggles to become full-fledged, advancing forward and scoring small victories in the name of maturation only to foul up and withdrawal, but it sort of phenomenally chronicles this refrain without judgment, and ultimately with a goodwill indicative of the season in which it’s set.

As auteur, Swanberg sticks to his modus operandi of low budget locations (the primary house in the film is his) and casting people he knows (his own son plays the movie son). Yet the ultra-prolific director, like Jenny, doesn’t just want to do the same stuff, and so you can sense a shifting away from the angsty twenty-something themes of previous films toward those that come with pediatrician appointments. You can see it too. The sequence in which Jenny pledges her non-mantra is set in a non-descript apartment with bare white walls and a lamp on the floor, a holdover of dorm days. Yet when the film switches to Jeff and Kelly’s we find something outfitted with more lived-in character, a home, which sounds vague but is actually specific. Then again, their home has a Tiki bar in the basement, a sort of Hipster man cave, and this is where Jenny crashes, giving her readymade access to everything she doesn’t need.

Not that Jenny is some Midwestern variation of a Hamptons Party Girl. She is self-centered and self-destructive but never unhinged, still a good person with a benign soul, as if her bad decisions spring from youthfully misplaced idealism. And when she makes those bad decisions, rather than confront them to engender growth, she hides out, most memorably in a shot sunk in the couch in the Tiki bar basement where she callows away behind her Mac laptop like it’s an impenetrable shield of invisibility. And just as rooted in truthfulness is the way Jenny’s brother and sister-in-law react to her presence. They love Jenny but they love their little son just a little more because they have to, and so when Jenny’s irresponsibility threatens to upset the delicate balance of a child-rearing household, they have to put their foot down.

The baby, refreshingly, is not simply presented as a plot point, a device to force a wedge between the trio, but a living, breathing, babbling little dude who requires around-the-clock attention. His presence ultimately renders Kelly just as central to the story as Jenny, for as the latter struggles with responsibility, so does the former, just in her own way. She is responsible – very much so – and that eternal responsibility of staying home with and caring for their child is subtly wearing at her. She is a novelist, yearning for some time to write. This could have been the genesis for faux-tension between hubby and spouse, but Swanberg allows his character to let Kelly have the time which, in turn, allows the film to explore the relationship between these two women.

By employing improvised dialogue, we get to hear Kendrick and Lynskey riff in attempting to craft a theoretically moneymaking erotica novel, and while it feels very off the cuff it also allows for moments of curious insight. There is a marvelous exchange, in fact, when Jenny expresses surprise, sort of seriously, sort of pseudo-seriously, that the book is not already completed. She figured it would take all of ten days. “A whole book?” Kelly asks, laughing. It’s a sly dig at the gaggle of Hollywood movies which purport to reconcile all issues in a manner of a few days.

The end of “Happy Christmas” might seem brusque. Stephen Holden at The New York Times certainly did, lamenting “The movie’s piddling, perfunctory ending — its only major weakness — lets Jenny off the hook after another lapse.” Ah, but then the season of Christmas is the season of reconciling sins. The end doesn’t let Jenny off the hook – it lets her be forgiven. That's bold, not perfunctory.


Anonymous said...

This is the second review I've seen on Happy Christmas recently. I really didn't have much interest in watching it, but now after your review, I'm a little more curious.

Also, I liked the mention - or rather hit - at Hollywood nicely wrapping up huge plots in a short matter of time. Nice review, Nick! -Kristin

Alex Withrow said...

I loved that brief exchange about why the book isn't yet completed, for the exact reasons you mentioned. It was such a subtle dig at Hollywood, and, also, painfully true. Anyone who has ever created anything has been asked that question long before it is necessary. Glad you liked this film, it's my favorite Swanberg so far.