Last Christmas, Hollywood’s latest Yuletide offering, gets the job done. Feel-good and frothy, Paul Feig’s take on the holiday heart-wrencher folds Fleabag into Charles Dickens and the outcome, as nonsensical as its part may be, makes for an effortlessly charming watch. Set in a tourist’s version of London — picturesque Brick Lane and other landmarks dusted over with puffs of snow — Last Christmas might seem awfully generic compared to Feig’s past output of inventive and raunchy female-fronted romps. But what it lacks in originality it makes up for in brisk pacing and an easy-to-love lead.
Emilia Clarke plays Katerina, the 26-year-old daughter of former Yugoslavian emigres, and an aspiring vocalist stuck working a dayjob at a Christmas trinket shop where she’s required to dress as an elf. Katerina, or rather, the anglicized Kate (her preferred name), is a hot mess, taking to the pub on a nightly basis where she hopes to sleep herself into a free bed, or otherwise couchsurfing with old friends who are too kind to admit they’ve outgrown her. Despite looking like a minor trainwreck with her perpetually smudged mascara and Kesha-inspired wardrobe, and however self-centered and embittered she is with her life and family, Kate is blessed with a fun and vibrant personality. Thank Emilia Clarke’s million-dollar smile, and puppy-dog expressive eyebrows. Because of her, it’s easy to root for our girl.
From the pits of (imagined) homelessness, the only way is up. Kate’s redemption arc is sparked by none other than Tom (Henry Golding), a handsome stranger that randomly takes an interest in the disgruntled elf. Though she initially rebuffs his advances, Kate eventually grows smitten with the quirky dude, who spends his free time volunteering at a homeless shelter and preaches the virtues of the phoneless lifestyle. While these elements of his personality are mildly unbearable, they’re not out of place in the film’s altruist holiday ethos. Besides, under Tom’s influence, Kate begins making genuine efforts to repair her relationship with her estranged sister, and make amends to her sassy, but ultimately kind-hearted employer, Santa (Michelle Yeoh, whose character’s Mandarin name she replaces with that holiday moniker for entrepreneurial convenience).
Recurring references to Kate’s “sickness” eventually reveal that she recently underwent a heart transplant, a traumatizing procedure that was the catalyst for her bad behavior. Living under her parents’ roof is in part a reminder of these dark times, so she avoids them until Tom encourages her otherwise, swallowing her frustration with her overly anxious mother (Emma Thompson, who in addition to penning the script here plays a caricature babushka, silly accent and all). Kate’s repressed identity is also something she’s working through, but Feig and Thompson’s script never quite makes clear why she’s so ashamed of her roots. A shoehorned-in reference to Brexit and the openly racist attitudes of some neighborhood assholes makes suggestion of the country’s political climate, perhaps explaining Kate’s own insecurities. But this and other superficially progressive elements (Kate’s lesbian sister hiding her relationship from mom and dad) never take on much dramatic weight beyond the generic messaging that learning to accept others is a virtue that will make your life easier.
Last Christmas ends with a preposterous twist and how you react to it depends on whether you have more stake in Tom and Kate’s relationship or the silly, magical fun of Christmas movies. It’s easy to take a cynical attitude towards Feig’s effort. But I stuck through to the end smiling with a dumb look on my face. And in my book, which isn’t exactly full of love for holiday movies, that counts as something.