Arts & Entertainment

‘Last Christmas’ Brings Unnecessary Innovation to Romantic Comedy

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Each generation has its defining romantic comedy — “When Harry Met Sally” and “10 Things I Hate About You” to name a couple. “Last Christmas” isn’t near being that film. Despite rampant advertising and a high-profile cast, “Last Christmas” is a middling, somewhat confusing rom-com that misses the mark on several occasions. By next Christmas, no one will even remember this film exists. But for now, it’s not a bad way to spend a couple hours.

Inspired by Wham!’s hit song of the same name, “Last Christmas” released Nov. 8, following the life of 26-year-old Katarina “Kate” (Emilia Clarke), a cynical, disheveled Christmas shop worker who lives her life day-to-day, constantly on the outskirts with her friends and family, barely holding herself together. When Kate meets free-spirited Tom (Henry Golding), she begins on a path of restoring herself and moving past her bad habits.

Hailing from a Yugoslavian immigrant family, Kate grew up the star of her family with an angelic singing voice. In the present, Kate is a still-aspiring — and constantly failing — singer who can’t seem to catch a break. In the wake of recovering from an illness, Kate lets negativity swallow her and distances herself from her family.

With its winter-in-London setting and Christmas aesthetic, “Last Christmas” conveys the warmth expected of holiday fluff. The film gives London a cozy, familiar atmosphere that makes up for its weaker plotting. 

Directed by Paul Feig of “Bridesmaids” fame, “Last Christmas” veers off the path of a traditional rom-com in a surprisingly daring manner. As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly clear the focus of the story has little to do with the romance between Kate and Tom. The film centers around Kate’s own dysfunction instead and details her growth as a person.

Tom is entirely underdeveloped and unrealized. Initially, this seems to be a major writing flaw. But given the true focus of the film, this choice is intentional. Tom volunteers at homeless shelters, gets rid of his phone so he can appreciate his surroundings and lives in a tidy apartment more reminiscent of an HGTV show than of a broke millennial. He’s essentially perfect and of an impossible standard, which highlights Kate’s own insecurities and flaws.

As viewers see Tom entirely from Kate’s perspective, his qualities are enhanced and idealized, and he acts more as an idea than a true character. The role of Tom exists only to build Kate’s characterization, and while this may seem like a fatal flaw, it’s an intentional choice. That said, it doesn’t land as efficiently as it could. 

Kate’s relationship with her boss “Santa” (Michelle Yeoh) brings a fun energy to the film. Yeoh (“Crazy Rich Asians,” “Tomorrow Never Dies”) delivers a top-notch performance as Santa and sells a large sum of the film’s comedic moments. Watching Kate and Santa grow in their understanding of each other is a satisfying subplot that provides the feel-good entertainment people expect of a rom-com.

The family scenes work fine but are haphazardly written. Kate’s initial descriptions of her family don’t align with their actual depictions which creates a confusing dynamic. Their caricatured nature also hams up the film in an undesirable manner, despite the film’s few, forced attempts at pro-immigration sentiment. The thought is there, but when British actors are playing stereotypical Eastern European immigrants with little characterization, the reality contradicts itself.

Co-writer Emma Thompson (“Love Actually,” “Sense and Sensibility”) also stars as Petra, Kate’s mother. Thompson brings a lot of effort into her performance but her one-note character falls flat in most regards. Ultimately, trying to stuff a poignant immigration sublot into an introspective rom-com probably wasn’t the best idea. But “Last Christmas” at least went in directions most rom-coms don’t, for better or worse.

There’s a lot going on in “Last Christmas” and much of it isn’t great. Viewers will likely leave the theater puzzled, which is untraditional for the genre. Rom-com fans shouldn’t watch “Last Christmas” expecting a heartwarming love story that provides laughter and tears. 

More likely, one should enter the theater expecting to watch one of the most bizarre mainstream films of the year. And that’s certainly a selling point for some. It just isn’t anywhere in line with the advertising.

“Last Christmas” is an unnecessarily daring film that often mistakes innovation for enhancement. It’s not the feel good movie of the year but it isn’t without charm. Rom-com fans will definitely find something to like here, even if this film embarks on an unconventional path. And the performances are good enough to make the aimless writing less egregious.

“Last Christmas,” rated PG-13, is in theaters nationwide.

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