As a culture, we tend to give Christmas films a bit of a free pass, what with their good intentions and lashing of festive spirit in an otherwise cold, cynical world. For that reason alone it’s difficult to fairly judge a movie like Last Christmas without being full of mulled wine, wrapped in a fuzzy jumper and longing for that mince pie you left out on the side.
It’s a film that demands to be watched in such cosy circumstances, but sadly it’s not one that holds up to any kind of scrutiny or critical thinking. It contains little of director Paul Feig’s usual wit and is saved only in certain moments by a muddled script.
We follow Kate (Emilia Clarke), a woman in control of virtually no element of her life and who we can be sure will learn something about the spirit of the holidays before long. Kate works in an all-year Christmas store in Covent Garden with boss Santa (a brilliant Michelle Yeoh), but is effectively homeless having alienated all of her friends. She also resents her fairly nice if dysfunctional family for reasons that aren’t immediately clear.
Soon she meets manic pixie dream guy Tom (Henry Golding) and the pair begin an awkward romance. Despite seemingly not having any friends or family of his own, Tom seems like the perfect guy to rescue Kate from her aimless existence, and she’s soon succeeding at her job, mending family feuds and organising a show at her local homeless shelter.
As we delve into our heroine’s life we find there’s actually something a little dark and unpleasant about the world of Last Christmas, preventing it from becoming the feel-good guilty pleasure it clearly wants to be. There’s also the baffling choice to shoehorn in a George Michael/Wham! soundtrack that’s such a minor element that it feels like it got lost in the editing room somewhere.
Emma Thompson, who stars as Kate’s mother in addition to serving as the film’s co-writer – alongside Greg Wise and Bryony Kimmings – is the only one who nails the mix of melancholy and whimsy that film calls for at different moments. Yeoh, too, channels the best weird sidekicks of romcoms past, elevating the role to hilarious, often quite surreal, heights.
There’s a brief detour into Brexit-fuelled xenophobia and the family’s status as immigrants that doesn’t work at all and, while having it woven into the fabric of the film more elegantly could have made Last Christmas something more timely, the reality is that the whole thing grinds to a halt whenever it’s brought up.
But the biggest issue is the love story, which is an utter mess. Like many a film of this oeuvre, Last Christmas holds a large amount of disdain for modern dating and openly longs for a time when meet-cutes were happy events and not cause for alarm or suspicion. That’s not a problem in theory, but here the romance is scuppered by the fact that Tom comes off as genuinely creepy, and Kate as naive for the fact she trusts him at all.
The idea is that Kate was given a second chance at life after a heart transplant, but she hasn’t figured out how to make the most of it. She’s in that place that many find themselves – scared to do anything and so choosing instead to do nothing – and it’s when the movie is exploring those feelings of guilt and shame that it hints at a greater potential. One scene when Kate, cradled in Tom’s arms like a child, confides in him her fears and anxieties, is really intimate and demonstrates that this cast probably deserved a better movie.
The sad truth is that Last Christmas fails as a romcom, as social commentary and as a showcase for its impressive collection of talent, even if it still just about passes as a Christmas movie. There are a lot of fun ideas and novel elements to be found in throwaway gags or in moments inbetween the main thrust of the movie and, for the forgiving viewer, that might be enough.
For those wanting more, however, Last Christmas is much like the day itself – predictable, a bit of a let-down, and best enjoyed after a few too many Baileys.
Last Christmas is in cinemas from 15 November.