‘Last Christmas’ feels familiar, but it gives you its heart
You should know that I love Christmas movies.
I mean that I watch “White Christmas” every single year while I wrap presents (and I fast forward through the minstrel show number, because freakin’ yeesh, Bing). “The Holiday”: a slept-on treasure, like Cameron Diaz herself. “All I Want For Christmas” deserves to be a classic, but society just isn’t ready to have that conversation. (Be right back, starting a petition to induct Lauren Bacall into the Christmas flick canon.) There’s even love in my heart for “Love Actually,” the opposite of timeless.
I say all that explain why the witty, good-hearted and admittedly frothy “Last Christmas” made me so happy. If you’re looking for a sober examination of themes and plot structure in this wintry rom-com from director Paul Feig and co-writer/co-star Emma Thompson, go see what, I dunno, the New Yorker has to say. This, our first theatrical glad tiding of the season — it’s November, get into it! — belongs to its own category, holiday fare. We’re going to judge it on that genre’s merits: heart, humor and the all-important rewatchability.
“Last Christmas” is inspired by the Wham song of the same name (it says so, right in the opening credits). You feel George Michael’s presence throughout, too, in the soundtrack and on the posters on the wall. In fact, the movie introduces us to young Kate (played by Madison Ingoldsby) singing “Heal the Pain” in a Yugoslavian church choir in the 1990s, her tearfully proud mother, Petra (played by Thompson) watching from the pews.
Flash-forward to the 21st century, and the grown-up Kate (played by “Game of Thrones” dragon matron Emilia Clarke) lives in the U.K. with her family, who fled war. Kate’s trying to make it as a singer. But mostly, she drinks, she surfs on couches and she works (using the word only in its strictest sense) at a Christmas store as an elf. A self-centered Tasmanian devil of jingling bells and smudged eyeliner, we gather that Kate recently struggled with some kind of grave illness. The aftermath has left her adrift and estranged her from the depressed, overbearing Petra.
Between sparring with the woman who runs the Christmas shop, known only as Santa (played by Michelle Yeoh in elegant, sparkle-forward garments that belong in the Smithsonian), Kate meets the dashing Tom (played by Henry Golding). He’s a mysterious do-gooder/bike courier who pops in and out of her life as all good movie mystery boyfriends do. But each time they cross paths, Tom brings a little bit of Kate back to herself. Will they give each other their hearts? That’s for George Michael to know and for the viewer to find out.
Tropes, baby, we’re doing tropes, and it feels oh-so good! Like the shot of bourbon you slide into that mug of Swiss Miss before you face your family on Dec. 25, “Last Christmas” follows a familiar, cozy formula. Girl meets seemingly magical boy (see also “The Bishop’s Wife”). Girl performs a kindness for someone who’s helped her (see also “Home Alone 2: Lost In New York”). Girl finds her own way in a cold world thanks to the magic of Christmas (see also “It’s a Wonderful Life” and every single one of these flicks). Girl wanders the street in search of elusive figure (see also “Eyes Wide Shut” … wait, no).
Christmas movies speak their own language. It’s a feature, not a bug. For the yuletide comfort food lovers among us, it’s felt like forever since we had a genuinely sweet, star-studded wonderland in the theaters. You love to see it.
Not to damn the movie with the praise of low expectations. “Last Christmas” has its uneven spots. Even as we unpack Kate’s mystery illness, it’s never 100 percent clear why she and Petra have beef. Tom is, honestly, perfect — couldn’t spare a character flaw or two for the guy? And sometimes, when you come up from being dazzled by the romance of sneaking into ice rinks and the power of Michelle Yeoh’s high ponytail, you think: Wait, is something supposed to be happening in this movie? It seems like Daenerys Targaryen is suffering from legitimate trauma; maybe Nick from “Crazy Rich Asians” should, like, acknowledge that?
Clark is an adequately charming star atop this particular tree, though she’s overshadowed at most turns by movie-star-in-waiting Golding, who dances in a way for which my fragile heart was not prepared, and Yeoh, who classes the joint up while being truly hilarious. Thompson’s Slavic accent is a little broad, sure, but you won’t find Emma Thompson libel in this publication. She earns the lion’s share of the laughs.
Where “Last Christmas” does distinguish itself among other holiday chestnuts? Its world is wide. There are a couple nods to Brexit, and to the xenophobic nationalism at its ugly core, in this story about, don’t forget, a refugee family. Kate’s friends look like England actually looks, faces from different parts of the world and different parts of the LGBT community. Thompson’s script sings the praises of kindness above all else. Well worth an annual rewatch, that.
Starring: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Emma Thompson, Michelle Yeoh.
Director: Paul Feig.
Rated: PG-13 for language and sexual content.
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.
Theaters: Alamo Lakeline, Alamo Slaughter, Alamo South Lamar, Barton Creek, Flix, Galaxy, Gateway, Hill Country, Lakeline, Metropolitan, Moviehouse 620, Moviehouse Lantana, Pflugerville 20, Sky Dripping, Southpark, Southwest Lake Creek, Stone Hill, Westgate.