LAST CHRISTMAS is a lugubrious exercise in muddled storytelling. Billed as a romantic comedy, there is little humor to be found as the romance between a klutz who’s lost her way in life, and the handsome stranger who pops in and out of that life fails to ignite past the infamous friend zone.
The klutz is Kate (Emilia Clarke, the Mother of Dragons), Katerina to her Croatian family relocated to London two decades ago, obsessed with George Michael and with becoming a singing sensation her own self. For now, though she dons an elf costume as a sales associate in a year-round Christmas store run by Santa (Michelle Yeoh), a woman whose devotion to the Yuletide is masked completely by a foreboding persona. Surrounded by tinsel, light-strings, and dubious ephemera (disco mangers and Santa gibbons), Kate evokes no holiday cheer as she auditions (badly), couch-surfs (even more badly), and makes very poor decisions about one-night stands (disasters). At the nadir of her already fraught existence, Tom (Henry Golding) appears, urging her to look up as a way of noticing things she hasn’t seen before. Of course the first thing she looks up at is a bird that proceeds to poo in her eye. Never mind. Tom is soon pointing out gilded crickets and the narrowest alley in all of London Town while never once making a move on Kate, yet somehow charming her.
In due course we learn why Kate is having the existential crisis that has caused her to go from merry, per Santa, to seasonal buzz kill. In the mix is her melodramatic mother (Emma Thompson, who saves every scene she’s in with just the right amount of ham), put-upon father (sad-eyed Boris Isakovic), and her humorless, over-achieving sister (Lydia Leonard). Tom, further of course, offers her a different perspective in addition to the looking-up advice with an introduction to a homeless shelter, where he volunteers, and by really listening when she opens up about that existential crisis.
Clarke, rubber-faced and genuinely gifted as a walking pratfall, is good at both the comedy, such as it is, and the self-reflection during the momentous speech she gives to Tom about where it all went wrong. To her credit, she makes both credible to her character even if the script does little to support her. She is without artifice, yet emotionally immediate whether suffering the smothering love of her mother, looking astonishingly like a wounded gazelle when life takes another piece of her heart, or lighting up the screen with a 1000-watt smile when she gloms onto the secret of happiness. Oh yes, we learn what that is. Golding is charming and handsome, which is all the part requires, while Yeoh is fierce and giddy as her character is gobsmacked by the prospect of her own romance with shy, stuttering sauerkraut expert (Peter Mygind). Clarke and Yeoh together dissecting their respective relationships are the best thing going, which is a shame in a film that is supposed to be a conventional rom-com.
For some reason, the Brexit crisis is introduced, to bring a whiff of politics to the less than heady brew, and the homeless shelter provides a bit of social commentary. A very little bit. Thompson’s reading of the phrase “lesbian pudding” does a better job. In what has the whiff of padding and desperation, when all else fails, the characters breeze through montages of the open air market in Covent Garden, sampling food and ogling the merchandise.
Which brings me to Paul Feig, a usually scintillating director of comedy. For reasons I cannot fathom, he misses many opportunities, even the easy pickings of audition bombing. LAST CHRISTMAS is the first holiday film of the year, and, if we’re lucky, will be long gone before Thanksgiving. A waste of considerable talents, it quashes holiday spirit, and the romance of, well, romance.