' ' Cinema Romantico: Last Christmas

Monday, November 25, 2019

Last Christmas

There is a distinct tension in Wham!’s “Last Christmas” that has, I think, made it last. Sonically it’s a bouncy tune, epitomized in those melodic sleigh bells, though lyrically it skews darker, less about wishing someone a merry Christmas than telling an ex to go straight to hell – well, not really telling her, but thinking about telling her (“I’m hiding from you and your soul of ice”). Paul Feig’s “Last Christmas”, alas, while building to a rendition of the song, and while implementing a good many more George Michael songs along the way even if it refrains from becoming a true jukebox musical, rarely honors that tension. No, “Last Christmas”, despite co-starring and being co-written by Emma Thompson, is more prestige Hallmark Channel Christmas for the big screen. Indeed, much like those assembly line productions of dependable hokum, where if you twisted their tone just one degree this way or that way their insistence on Christmas Magic and secular faith in not being alone as the reason for the season, they could get really dark really fast, so too is “Last Christmas” balanced on the edge of something more grave. Kate (Emilia Clarke) has problems, real problems that the movie sees, and while it’s sort of letting her work them out on her own, it’s also not, inserting its own brand of Christmas Magic that tacks away from its inherent melancholy for something lighter and fluffier, less George Michael in the end than Michael Bublé’s “Christmas.”

The protagonists of such films tend to inhabit one of two possible character types: career-oriented and hard-charging or quirky and disease-ridden. Kate is the latter, saddled with complications from a heart transplant and guided by impulse rather than prudence, which Clarke highlights by finding just the right mixture of winning and overbearing, rendering it believable that people would both invite her in for the night and then, exasperated, ask her to leave the next morning. And that, more than the movie itself, honors the Sad Bastard, so to speak, genre from which Wham!, and so many others sprung, happy on the surface but desperate and depressed rumbling just underneath. Given her supposed medical condition, “Last Christmas” suggests a character perched on the edge of literal self-destruction, though Clarke doesn’t do much to convey the supposed physical tenuousness of her ailment while the movie seems less interested in accentuating the literal physical dangers than employing it as a device to demonstrate her need for emotional and social stability.

If Feig has the welcome sense not to construct her self-actualization, despite a looming Big Event, around completion of a task or some other outward activity, allowing her to figure things out on her own, the way in which “Last Christmas” conveys this individual liberation is a failure in both idea and execution. It’s a failure in idea because even if Kate’s dilemma is internal than external this internal dilemma nevertheless manifests itself in an external fashion that, alas, I am legally obligated not to explain in further detail except to say it involves a romance with Tom, a free spirit played by Henry Golding with a buttoned-up air that does not exactly convey the non-conformist the script suggests he is. If in the recent “A Simple Favor” he was the guy going 52 mph in a 75 zone where Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick were doing 83, easy, here he’s running at 33 1/3 RPMs compared to Clarke’s 78. And while that’s good in so much as his character provides a calming influence, it renders Tom more as a sponsor than a love interest, an idea which never jibes with what “Last Christmas” wants these two to be.

It’s on slightly more sure footing in the relationship between Kate and her Croatian mother Petra, perhaps because she’s played by Thompson, who co-wrote the screenplay. If I don’t feel qualified to speak on Emma Thompson’s Slavic accent, she has nevertheless perfected the art of that quizzical, mouth-agape squint conveying a mother who can’t quite figure out her own daughter and suffers from being an immigrant in a country that has turned toward Brexit. Sadly, however, this subplot is skin-deep, more about asserting moral correctness than casting that ongoing political calamity in any kind of revealing light, save for one offhand remark in which Petra notes who she thinks is responsible for such social strife, staring off into space as she says it, oblivious to its connotations, so casual it’s cutting, and in a split-second putting the blinkered nature of Brexit into rather harsh perspective. Kate, meanwhile, becoming an inadvertent volunteer at a homeless shelter is meant to transcend the very virtue-signaling another volunteer accuses her of by having the Christmas pageant she organizes aid her metamorphosis from selfish to selfless. Of course, it’s hard not to notice that during her triumphant singing of “Last Christmas”, naturally, all the homeless just sort of fade into the background, unnamed Supremes to Kate’s Diana Ross. It’s still her show.

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