Every generation gets its own “Love, Actually,” apparently, and this one’s is “Last Christmas.” Both films put the thinnest, flakiest crust of wry British wit around a gooey, sugary filling of holiday romance.
And, just like “Love, Actually,” I imagine some people will gag on “Last Christmas,” and others will put it into their regular Christmas movie-watching rotation, thanks to a pair of ingratiating lead performances, a clever script co-written by Emma Thompson, and direction by Paul Feig (“A Simple Favor”) that finds the sunny side of even the darkest winter night.
Emilia Clarke, putting some distance between her and Daenerys, plays Kate, who’s a bit of a selfish screw-up. Not a full-blown millennial Scrooge, but the sort of cheerfully reckless sort who hops from bar to bed to bar and, occasionally, to work.
Work, in her case, is a year-round Christmas bauble store run by a stern woman with the unlikely name of Santa (Michelle Yeoh). Some of the best running gags in the movie involve the array of bizarre yuletide merchandise for sale in the store, including a techno manger and something called a “Christmas gibbon.” Wildly underemployed, Kate has to wear an elf’s costume while enduring the holiday cheer of her customers, echoing David Sedaris’ “SantaLand Diaries.”
One day, Kate runs into Tom (Henry Golding of “Crazy Rich Asians”), a ridiculously charming man who takes an immediate shine to her. Tom is the sort of relentlessly cheerful guy who literally dances around London – he looks like he should be sporting a top hat and cane. They wander around a sparkling, Christmas-lights bedazzled London exchanging Thompson’s witty dialogue, although their budding romance is surprisingly chaste. Is this just a throwback to old-fashioned movie romances? Or does “Last Christmas” have something else up its red velvet sleeve?
The plot, for the most part, is honestly secondary to the film’s main appeal, which is to watch pretty people saying pretty things as they walk around a pretty city. It’s ironic that the poster for “Last Christmas’ fairly screams “LONDON!” by featuring both Big Ben and the London Eye ferris wheel, because Feig prefers to explore the nooks and crannies of the city (sometimes literally) than only a native would know. The music of Wham! and George Michael permeates the film, including (to my count) four versions of the title song.
The screenplay by Thompson and Greg Wise does feel a little overstuffed – every scene seems to pack in 10 mildly funny lines when maybe two really funny ones would be better. And, in addition from shifting tones from romcom to tearjerker and back again, the film manages to also work in subplots involving the plight of the homeless and the impending threat of Brexit. Sometimes watching “Last Christmas’ felt like one of those Christmas mornings as a kid where there are too many presents under the tree, and opening them all became kind of a grind.
But Clarke is so winning as Kate, and the film is so unabashedly sweet, that I found it hard to resist (though I tried). I’ll probably respect you more if you don’t like it. But I’ll also feel a little sad for you, too.