Last Christmas, I gave you my heart
But the very next day you gave it away
This year, to save me from tears
I gave it to someone special…
It’s that time of the year again, where theatres start to serve us slices of family-friendly Christmas movies to keep us cosy during the holidays. Is what I would say if romantic comedies are still a mainstay in today’s cinema landscape. Alas, such is not the case anymore in the modern era of the ‘explosive blockbuster’. I reckon we’ll be getting a bunch of these films straight to Netflix and various streaming platforms over the next month or so. One film we are getting in cinemas, though, is comedy genius Paul Feig’s Last Christmas. Now, Last Christmas is no masterpiece, it’s not perfect, heck, it’s a far cry from Feig’s best, Spy (sorry Bridesmaids), but we don’t go to these movies expecting a piece of pure cinema. We go to these films to see good looking people, to laugh, to tear up, to snug up against our significant other and to leave the theatre feeling warm and fuzzy on the inside. And on that front, this Paul Feig Christmas movie has plenty to offer.
The film opens in Yugoslavia in 1999, where a young Katarina leads a choir that’s beautifully singing an arrangement George Michael’s ‘Heal the Pain.’ The film then transitions to London, right after the Brexit referendum. Katarina (Emilia Clarke), sorry Kate — she keeps reminding her family members that she no longer goes by her birth name — is now an aspiring actress who also works full time at a Christmas decoration and gift shop. There’s a sad cloud that constantly hovers over her head. She’s estranged from her family, her acting career isn’t going according to plan, she’s constantly zoning out during her day job much to the chagrin of her boss and she’s pretty much homeless, crashing either at her friends’ place or random guys’ she hooks up with after getting piss drunk.
Insert Henry Golding’s Tom, a cute guy she meets outside her workplace one day. Tom is a weird character, one who doesn’t carry a phone around with him (he stashed it at a cupboard back home, he says), always wears the same coat, commutes by bicycle and always tells her to look up. He becomes the only glimmering star in her life that’s shrouded in darkness. Naturally, she thinks they’re soulmates. They go on little adventures together, from having quiet chats in secret gardens to breaking into ice-skating rinks to help her practice for an upcoming audition.
The journey these characters embark on is sweet and you can’t help but root for them, mostly because of the talents involved. Emilia Clarke hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire outside of Game of Thrones — she was miscast as Sarah Connor in Terminator: Genisys and Me Before You is a movie that doesn’t work for reasons outside of her control — but here she’s great. It’s not exactly an easy character to play either. Kate has to be both insufferable from an action standpoint (she keeps messing up, which is why her friends keep kicking her out. And she’s just not fun to be around), but likeable from an indescribable emotional standpoint.
Clarke has IT. She’s one of those actors who always radiates like the brightest ornament on one of those huge Christmas trees you’ll find in KLCC. Like Gal Gadot, she has a bubbly smile that’ll melt the hearts of a thousand Orcs. It’s easy to see why all the characters that surround Kate, even the ones she constantly pushes out of her life, keep forgiving her. And Golding? Well, let’s just say he, thanks to his irreplicable boyish charm and dazzling good looks, will be a mainstay in this genre for years to come.
But it’s not just the leads. It’s also Michelle Yeoh, who plays Kate’s boss Santa. Yeoh will always be remembered for her absolute badassery in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or more recently her role as unbending mother-in-law in Crazy Rich Asians. But here, Yeoh sheds a lot of that away (though she still retains that maternal strength) to play a character that’s warm — by Asian standards — and incredibly funny. Someone who chuckles like a 15-year-old when she sees a suave middle-aged man walk into her shop.
For the most part, Last Christmas, really really works. Paul Feig’s excellent comedic direction, with his cheeky inserts and cutaways, enhance writer, Emma Thompson’s funny quips and all the actors’ delivery tenfold. But there are aspects of the film that are just odd. Apart from being a rom-com that also explores the dynamics of an estranged family, Last Christmas also tries to be a commentary on Xenophobia in the post-Brexit world. The intent is clear: It’s Christmas, so let’s put aside our differences and celebrate one another. But Thompson’s screenplay doesn’t explore this aspect in-depth or consistently (apart from Kate repeatedly saying she’s not Katarina anymore), so it just feels intrusive. A Christmas miracle for the sake of a Christmas miracle.
And then there’s the twist. A twist that can be argued is set up from very early on, through songs and certain character choices, but feels emotionally deceptive, unnecessary and kind of just stabs you in the heart without warning. I won’t spoil it, of course, but it’s one that left a similar sour taste in my mouth much like the final episode of How I Met Your Mother. It’s not just the twist, it’s how the film glosses over the meaning and impact of it and rushes towards the expected happy ending that really bothers me.
But as a whole, Last Christmas is a perfectly enjoyable romantic comedy. It may not be a well marinated, freshly roasted turkey, but it sure is a delightful mug of hot chocolate.