Last Christmas. Directed by Paul Feig. Starring Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding. Rating: 6 (out of 10)
Holy Mother of Dragons, the holidays are officially here!
And leading the charge of this cinematic sugar rush is Game Of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke, smiling and singing merrily throughout the film, perhaps in an attempt to atone for all that crap she pulled on Kings Landing. (We’re not over it, Daenerys.)
Clarke plays Londoner Kate, who is traveling pell-mell down the path of self-destruction with boozy one-night-stands, a steady diet of takeout, and selfish behaviour that has alienated even her most stalwart friends.
She didn’t start out this way: the opening scene shows a young Kate singing angelically in a church in her former-Yugoslav homeland, where apparently they sing George Michael ditties during mass. Her devotion to the late, great GM established, we fast-forward to grown-up Kate.
As the title suggests, the film is “inspired by” Michael’s lyrics; the film features the artist’s songs exclusively which, surprisingly, is not as annoying as it sounds. Despite being a Wham! devotee back in the day and owning “Faith” – along with everyone else in the Western Hemisphere – there were several songs on the soundtrack I had never heard before, as well as previously unreleased material from Michael.
Grown-up Kate is running out of couches to crash on when she meets Tom (Henry Golding, Crazy Rich Asians). Tom encourages Kate to look up, metaphorically and physically, but the first time she does so a bird poops directly in her eye. We love Tom immediately because a) he’s ridiculously good looking, b) he doesn’t seem grossed-out that her face is poop-splattered and c) he doesn’t say “shit,” he says “poo,” which is, frankly, adorable.
But nobody can be so full of sage advice and not be a serial-killer, reasons Kate, so she returns to work. Work is the reason Kate is dressed in full elfin couture: she works in a picture-perfect year-round Christmas shop run by Santa (an enthusiastic Michelle Yeoh). Now, you and I both know her name is not Santa, but apparently Kate has not bothered to learn her boss’ real name. It’s a mutual agreement: Santa never calls Kate anything other than “Elf.”
Santa runs a tight sleigh, and Kate/Elf’s productivity has been flagging since her health issues a year previous. Santa is running out of patience, leading to some of Yeoh’s best lines: “I would kill you, but I don’t have enough tinsel to cover your corpse.”
Alas, the script of Last Christmas is like gobs of tinsel on a tree: shiny and promising in places but with lots of blank space in between. Emma Thompson came up with the story with husband Greg Wise, and shares a screenwriting credit with Bryony Kimmings. But because Thompson gifted us with the most moving scene in a holiday movie ever – the heart-wrenching, wordless Joni Mitchell scene in Love, Actually – we forgive her for almost anything.
But back to those mysterious health issues. Kate has missed five doctor’s appointments and now refuses to see her family. She even anglicized her name from Katarina in protest of her Yugoslav roots. Kate’s mother Petra (Emma Thompson), however, is fully immersed in the old ways: she sings dreary folks songs and seems genuinely perplexed when a doctor suggests she reconnect with friends: “All my friends are dead,” she announces. Even Clarke throws in a few lines of old-country dialogue. (The actor learned Dothraki: how hard can Croatian be?)
Too-Good-To-Be-True-Tom shows up intermittently to show her the hidden gems of London and coaxes the best out of Kate, who starts volunteering at a homeless shelter and easing up on the mascara. And he might just be the man of her dreams, if only he would hang around long enough. “I’m not going to heal my heart and then give it to someone who’d going to break it,” Kate threatens.
The entire film, directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) is constructed around one big moment, so much so that secondary plot threads are cast aside in the rush to get there. Hasty edits leave some scenes dangling and real discussion/resolution suffers as a result. A well-intentioned Brexit bit gets lost in the shuffle, as does Kate’s sister’s (Lydia Leonard) coming out. It’s a shame, because there are a host of scene-stealing minor characters who we would have liked to see more of.
Last Christmas aspires to be a worthy successor to Love, Actually and Bridget Jones’ Diary but falls far short. Its salvation is the warm rapport between Golding and Clarke (when they do appear together), a Christmas gibbon, and the distraction of all those twinkly lights, which are used liberally. So feel free to indulge those too-sweet holiday cravings; just remember to brush afterward.