The classic cinematic Christmas film seems to have gone out of fashion in the past few years. With Netflix’s increasing monopolisation of its almost infamous catalogue of average Christmas originals, it’s honestly refreshing to see one that actually feels like something which exists not to be taken as a joke. As well as this, unlike recent mainstream Christmas releases such as the underappreciated The Night Before and Office Christmas Party, Last Christmas isn’t loaded with raunchiness, favouring classic British whimsy despite being helmed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Spy, A Simple Favour)—one of Hollywood’s most prolific comedy directors of the 2010s.
Last Christmas follows the ever-downtrodden Kate (Emilia Clarke), whose life has taken a turn over the past year. She’s an aspiring singer who works at a Christmas store for her stern but wise boss who is known as Santa (Michelle Yeoh). Despite everything in her life seemingly going pear-shaped, she runs into Tom (Henry Golding)—a charming and mysterious figure who goes to great lengths in restoring Kate’s positive exterior.
Paul Feig is a director who loves to work within the frameworks of specific genres. He’s made a buddy comedy with The Heat, a spy comedy with the aptly titled Spy, a dark comedy thriller with A Simple Favour and Last Christmas as a classic Christmas rom-com. You could say that Feig has made a rom-com before with Bridesmaids in a way, but Last Christmas is far more classical in terms of abiding by the genre’s tropes. It’s a classic girl meets boy story but there’s a couple of extra layers which are peeled off throughout the movie. I wouldn’t say that those storytelling layers are unpredictable in the slightest.
What writers Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings do well is drive home the thematic idea that you can’t love others if you can’t love yourself. It’s a film which happily says that everyone has room for real self-improvement, even if it’s just on a small incremental level. In a broad Christmas film such as this, which is extremely fluffy and isn’t exactly depth-laden, having that thematic layer surrounding the importance of self-love and self-improvement is one which perfectly drives home the film’s sincerity and empathy. I’d hardly call this film realistic or grounded—it very much plays out like a fairy-tale—but it’s still a surprisingly humanist film when it wants to be.
Kate is obviously very dishevelled when we meet her. I don’t know if this was Thompson and Kimmings’ intentions as writers but there were tinges of Fleabag in the way that Kate was written. Akin to that show’s titular character, she’s perennially down-on-her-luck and prone to self-loathing in between bursts of happiness. Kate even has conflict with her sister Marta (Lydia Leonard), just like Fleabag does with her sister. Obviously Fleabag is on a whole different level as one of the best comedies—dare I say it—ever, but Last Christmas is an example of the similar element of comedy storytelling where we really identify and connect with the underdog. Kate makes frequent mistakes, has a fractured relationship with her family and struggles to make true connections with people. But under that struggle and her self-loathing tendencies, she has a heart of gold and demonstrates that she can improve herself as a person.
I’d hardly call the film’s storytelling beats original, but what Feig does as director is make up for a tried-and-true formula by loading it up with as much sweetness as possible. Despite there being absolutely nothing wrong with an overdose of heart and sincerity, sometimes the film can tip over that edge and become a bit too saccharine, moving from heartfelt to just flat-out cheesy. Feig often toes that line well but it’s especially noticeable in the third act where it spills over into that sickly-sweet space. I can slightly forgive this considering that it is a Christmas film. Unfortunately, the film’s main plot reveal is one which is all too obvious and its delivery is too dramatic and on-the-nose, coming off slightly more groan-worthy than dramatic and poignant.
After A Simple Favour and now Last Christmas, Henry Golding seems to be Paul Feig’s go-to leading man and despite how underdeveloped the character is, Golding really fits the role well. You needed someone to have an overload of charm for the role of Tom and Golding has that in spades. Golding has a lot more to do in A Simple Favour and his breakout role in Crazy Rich Asians, but in one which solely coasts off his laidback charm, he works.
Yet, it’s Emilia Clarke who is the real star, doing far better work than what a film like this arguably deserves. She provides an extremely likable presence, a character who works as the underdog that you want to see get a win. Clarke really sells the frequently downtrodden nature of the character, while just like Golding—having undeniable charm. Emma Thompson rightly gives herself a lot of the wittiest lines and honestly, I can’t argue with her logic. She’s undoubtedly the scene stealer of the film.
What I haven’t mentioned is that Last Christmas—as the title hints at—is a filmic homage to the music of George Michael, containing 15 of both Wham! and solo George Michael hits. Unlike fellow 2019 releases Yesterday and Blinded by the Light—whose stories were driven by the music of The Beatles and Bruce Springsteen respectively—this is more of a love-letter to George Michael in a solely musical and not story sense.
Yes, Last Christmas is cheesy to the maximum. So cheesy in fact, that I can remember my audible groaning reaction to the classic montage summing up the most heart-warming moments of the film in the third act cliché. I don’t think Feig should’ve stooped that low as a director but he’s clearly wanted to create something which is ultimately sincere first and it definitely is that. Thompson and Kimmings add in some Brexit commentary for good measure, but this definitely isn’t a film which aims to develop that for better or worse. First and foremost, this is a saccharine Christmas rom-com which truly coasts on the charm of its stars. As a Paul Feig film, I still couldn’t help but wish it was that little bit funnier. It’s clear now with Ghostbusters and this that he works better in a raunchier R rated space but as far as a light Christmas comedy goes, it’s hard to deny the wholesomeness of what this movie has to offer. And that great thematic touch of always striving for self-improvement in tough times strikes true in a world which is only becoming more chaotic by the day.
Last Christmas is in cinemas on Thursday, November 7.