It’s taken too long for Emilia Clarke to star in a romantic comedy. Bubbly to a fault, the English actor has a general disposition akin to a greeting card. Not that you would guess it from her actual calling card as the platinum haired Mother of Dragons on Game of Thrones who ordered one, two, and then thousands to immolation for nearly 10 years. Sadly, Hollywood has virtually abandoned romantic comedies as it has almost all mid-budget films, leaving a presence like Clarke relegated to uninspired blockbusters like Solo: A Star Wars Story or Terminator Genisys.
So, in theory, Last Christmas should feel like a homecoming: a movie that’s warm-hearted and buried under globs of Christmas lighting and sugar. But this is the kind of film that is insistently, even desperately, determined to be cozy. It’s also a romantic comedy that completely fails as a romance, only working when the comedy is front and center and the picture’s sentimentality is hidden away with the rest of the holiday decorations.
That is of course a challenge when Clarke’s Katarina (or just “Kate”) is a woman who works in a year-round London Christmas shop. Not that she enjoys the festivity. Introduced as living out of a suitcase and with a glass of beer perpetually in hand, Kate subsists by bouncing from one couch to the next while ducking phone calls from her mother Petra (Emma Thompson), who is worried about her daughter skipping all her doctor’s appointments. Apparently Kate suffered a major illness several Christmases ago, and she’s been bitterly sliding into underachievement ever since.
Yet that begins to change when Kate meets a dashing young lad named Tom (Henry Golding). The enigmatic Good Samaritan with a dreamy smile is chasing a bird above Kate’ Christmas shop when he awkwardly bumps into her, but he’s also an excuse for Kate to avoid the admonishments from her disapproving employer “Santa” (Michelle Yeoh). Thus she quickly begins going on makeshift dates with Tom whenever he stops by, ever intrigued by his claim of never using a cell phone. He also proves to be an angel on her shoulder, like Clarence offering free life advice to Jimmy Stewart, encouraging her to go home to mother and maybe start helping out at the nearby homeless shelter. If he can just keep his feet planted long enough for her to give him a kiss, this could be a very merry Christmas, indeed.
Last Christmas is a movie that earnestly wants to be liked, which isn’t terribly hard in its better moments. The first collaboration between director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, A Simple Favor) and screenwriter Emma Thompson (a talent many forget she has), the duo aims to bring the romantic comedy back in a big way. It already was winningly resurrected in last year’s Crazy Rich Asians—a movie that not-so-coincidentally happened to likewise star Golding and Yeoh—but Last Christmas is especially old-fashioned in its sensibilities, pulling from timeless holiday romances like the aforementioned It’s a Wonderful Life and even Thompson’s very own Yuletide chestnut with a heart 10 sizes bigger, Love Actually.
In fact, there’s a moment late in Last Christmas lifted almost directly from Love Actually where Clarke reveals an impressive singing voice by belting the eponymous song written by George Michael. It’s unoriginal, and has little to do with the central romance, but by just focusing on Clarke’s genial charm and the film’s host of supporting characters, the moment is as ingratiating as, well, a tacky Wham song.
It is also that supporting work where Last Christmas excels: be it Yeoh’s gift for deadpan insults, or Thompson’s Petra revealing herself to be a gift-wrapped box of neuroses. One even senses Thompson and Feig are both more interested in the political context of a family of immigrants being its focal point in a holiday story set during the backdrop of Brexit. And Thompson’s questionable Croatian accent notwithstanding, it gets closer to that Richard Curtis sensibility the movie so clearly is striving for.
However, at the end of the day, this is a romantic comedy, and the truth is the film appears no more invested in that aspect than audiences ultimately will be with Kate and Tom’s love story. Clarke’s Kate is a departure from most rom-com heroines in that her life is decidedly unglamorous, and the symmetry with her mysterious illness corresponds with the actor’s own nearly fatal medical history. But how that is shoehorned into her relationship with Tom is awkward, not least of all because Tom is barely a character.
Golding is a charismatic presence who already proved he can be a convincing Prince Charming in Crazy Rich Asians, but in Last Christmas, he is reduced to an idea, an accessory in Kate’s arc—little more than an ornament to keep on the mantle until New Year. Playing the male equivalent of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Golding is saddled with what I would call the Gentle Humble Dream Hunk. There is a method in this underdeveloped madness, and Tom’s aloofness is intentional setup for a third act twist that most audiences will predict, but that doesn’t make it better. It is that very twist that turns what was an amiable diversion into a lump of coal.
I am sure there is an audience for Last Christmas, not least of all because in the current glut of blockbusters, we are starved of good rom-coms and new holiday classics. Unfortunately, Last Christmas is neither, but it’s passable enough until the third act derailment. For that and Clarke finally being in a star vehicle that plays to her strengths, it will find fans, but don’t expect to be humming along to its melody this time next year.