After surprising audiences with A Simple Favor, a self-aware parody of the romantic thriller genre, director Paul Feig collaborates with actress-screenwriter Emma Thompson on Last Christmas, a romantic comedy based on the iconic song from singer-songwriter George Michael and his band Wham!. Feig blended an intriguing mystery and his trademark comedy to perfection with the former film, and in Last Christmas, merges his sense of humor with a heartfelt and humanist drama about overcoming personal dysfunction and becoming a better person with enjoyable, if at times sugary results.
A chance encounter finds a dysfunctional young woman opening her heart to a suave eccentric in this holiday-themed romantic comedy from Paul Feig.
With the end of Halloween comes the arrival of the Christmas season, and with that comes the common tradition of watching one’s favorite seasonal pieces of cinema to celebrate the festive holiday. Recent movies centered around Christmas have dealt with contemporary social problems, from seasonal depression in The Grinch to society’s general feeling of pessimism in The Christmas Chronicles.
This year, overcoming our anxieties over current events and personal self-destruction is covered in Last Christmas, a romantic comedy based on the famous 1986 single performed by pop band Wham! from lyrics written by musical icon George Michael. Following the surprise success of his last film, A Simple Favor, Paul Feig directs a script written by Bryony Kimmings and actress-screenwriter Emma Thompson (whose husband, Greg Wise, also contributed to the story), that is rife with sharp dialogue and Feig’s modern absurdism inside a compelling and heartfelt story about a young woman, her fractured family, and the community around them as they overcome their various issues to find internal happiness in time for the Christmas holiday.
Taking place in contemporary London, Last Christmas follows Kate (Emilia Clarke), an aspiring singer struggling to get her life together following a near-death experience. By day, she auditions for various stage shows and assists her boss Santa (Michelle Yeoh), with operating her Christmas-themed department store as its worker elf, right down to the uniform. By night, however, she partakes in countless amounts of booze which lead her into nightly one-night stands, and goes out of her way to avoid her family by ignoring distressed phone calls from her mother Petra (Emma Thompson), no-showing doctor’s appointments, and couch-surfing at her friends’ homes, only to fracture her bonds with them through one inconsiderate decision after another.
But one night, the mysterious but attractive Tom (Henry Golding) swings by her store and catches Kate’s attention with his dreamy demeanor and eccentric charisma, which compels her to go on a walk with him through the bright streets of London at night. A romance seems to blossom between the pair from there, and inspires Kate to overcome her selfishness and change her life for the better, but when Tom’s appearances around grow more sporadic, Kate begins to wonder what secrets Tom is keeping about himself and his life.
That sounds like the plot of a conventional romantic comedy on paper, but there’s so much more on the dramatic side going on throughout Last Christmas. In collaborating together, Thompson and Feig have created an engaging narrative that progresses from a comedy with Feig’s sense of slapstick and witty banter to a humanist drama. There are laughs aplenty throughout the film’s comedic first act, such as when Kate accidentally kills a friend’s aquatic pet by knocking a plugged-in hair dryer into his fish tank, a scenario where Kate has to change out of her uniform in a storefront with Tom shielding her from the sight of passers-by, and sharp quips about the poorly-made trinkets for sale on every shelf of Santa and Kate’s store.
Meanwhile, the drama packs a powerful punch in the second act when the full extent of Kate’s broken family is revealed, in addition to their anxieties over Brexit going into effect, and how it could change their standing and perception as immigrants from the former Yugoslavia. The script spends just enough time on the story to invest the audience in the characters around Kate with its nuanced storytelling without feeling too preachy.
And Emilia Clarke does her part in aiding Last Christmas with the best performance of her film career thus far; Clarke went public about having two aneurysms that put her life in jeopardy after the first season of Game of Thrones, and it’s evident that experience gave her a connection to the material, because Clarke showcases both comedic and dramatic range in portraying Kate as a character, from the hilarious horrified expression on her face when her mother tries to sing her to sleep with a lullaby despite her being an adult to an intimate, beautiful scene where Kate reveals a personal secret to Tom that sees her emotional resolve breaking with reserved naturalism. Meanwhile, she and Golding convey great chemistry in every scene they have together; Tom’s suave charm bounces off Kate’s witty snark with quick timing and involving pacing as the two characters peruse the streets of London, which are always gorgeous to look at thanks to vibrant cinematography that displays how beautiful the capital of England looks underneath the holiday lights.
As natural and compelling as the film’s progression is from a hilarious, snarky comedy to a beautiful humanist drama, a development in the third act sadly nosedives the immersive narrative into saccharine territory, and there isn’t much of a climax or payoff that follows such an outrageous revelation, leaving the answers to any follow-up questions one could ask let up to the imagination. It’s also worth noting that a side plot with Santa and a reserved but equally quirky love interest she calls ‘Boy’ (Peter Mygind) is funny, yet so tonally off from the rest of Last Christmas that it feels like it belongs in a different film.
Some may applaud the twist while others may deride it, but at face value, it doesn’t stop Last Christmas from being a light-hearted and humanist film about overcoming one’s own personal dysfunction and reconnecting with heritage and emotions in time for the holidays at this contemporary moment of societal unrest. The hearts of audiences will be warmed by the well-meaning messages of the film and tap their toes to the soundtrack comprising of George Michael’s greatest hits. It may veer too deep into cheesy, schmaltzy territory with its sentiment in the end, but if you’re looking to get into the Christmas spirit well before Thanksgiving, there’s nothing better to watch this weekend than Last Christmas.