This review was first published on November 4, 2020
Director Paul Feig was a television director who, within the last decade, has entered the world of feature films and has made a name for himself based on deconstructing genre tropes and having fun with audience expectations. His most significant success was, of course, Bridesmaids, a smart take on the romantic comedy that was really a film about the intricacies of female friendships. As the director responsible for arguably the only great Melissa McCarthy comedies in the past decade, he later made his own weird spin on the buddy-cop comedy, The Heat, and Feig cast McCarthy in Spy, his take on a James Bond-ish action thriller. Last year, his trashy airport novel film A Simple Favor was one of the year’s best that audiences slept on. But he hasn’t made a Christmas movie yet!
Last Christmas follows Kate (Emilia Clarke), a perpetually unlucky Londoner who works in a year-round Christmas store. Kate is kind of circling the drain and has damaged every relationship in her life. Her mother (Emma Thompson) is worried about her, and her boss (Michelle Yeoh) has all but given up on her. One day, she meet-cutes with Tom (Henry Golding), who makes it his mission to improve Kate’s life and make it one worth living again.
There are twists in Last Christmas. You won’t know exactly what’s coming, but it definitely sets itself up for a big reveal that looms over the whole film. You’ll see some of it coming, and that’s okay. Last Christmas doesn’t give you narrative whiplash in the way A Simple Favor does. And yet, I wouldn’t call this movie predictable. It doesn’t undermine everything this movie is doing so wonderfully right. It’s sweet and earnest, but not nearly as saccharine as that plot summary would suggest. It’s a tonic for the miserable year we’ve all had, while also reminding us that everyone is capable of self-improvement, even if you think that opportunity has passed you by. It’s warm and wise, sometimes riotously funny and at others shattering.
What I’m saying is this is precisely what you’d expect from a Paul Feig Christmas movie. It’s gleefully weird, but never inaccessible. This is the kind of film any audience can enjoy, from the lowest common denominator to the film-school nerd who takes joy in dissecting every moment. Last Christmas is written by costar Emma Thompson and first-time screenwriter Bryony Kimmings, inspired by the music of George Michael. This seems like a random choice until you see the movie, where the connection to his library of music makes perfect sense.
Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding are giving lovely, likable performances, and they have great chemistry. If Clarke can find work like this that challenges her, post Game of Thrones, I think she’ll be just fine, and audiences will continue to hear her name. And Golding, having previously worked with Feig in A Simple Favor last year, feels right at home in the leading man rom-com role. Emma Thompson is putting on a ridiculous accent, and she’s clearly having a lot of fun. The film’s one glaring weak spot involves a subplot with Michelle Yeoh’s character that is never resolved. The story kind of sets something up that never happens.
In conclusion, Last Christmas is a heartwarming hug of a movie, and it might be one everyone needs right now. It’s a clever deconstruction of Christmas movie and rom-com tropes that is every bit as weird as you’d expect a Paul Feig Christmas movie to be, but I also would not say this is his anywhere close to his best film. It isn’t the essential film of his career, but it is the one everyone will want to revisit around the holidays. As light and sweet as this film is, it never forgets the world it lives in. There’s plenty of nods to the current state of British politics (and how this is mirrored in the US), and it all connects to the ‘we could all do a little better’ message that hangs over the whole film. And as for Christmas movies, it immediately earns a spot on the shelf next to movies like Love, Actually and The Holiday as films I’ll rewatch every holiday season.