Review: Last Christmas is Here to Give Holiday Rom-Coms a Bizarre Twist
Emilia Clarke is quickly turning into this generation’s Meg Ryan. Throughout her turn as the mad mother of dragons, Clarke has also taken on more roles in rom-coms that capitalize on her ineffable charm. Last Christmas is a film that’s literally marketed as having been “inspired by the songs of George Michael.” When a film’s main conceit is that it’s based on a cheesy Christmas song, one must set one’s expectations reasonably low. Clarke may be effusively charming, but it might be a bit much to expect her to carry a film all on her quirky guffaw and extreme likability.
Despite a middling script by Emma Thompson (who also stars as Clarke’s humorless Yugoslavian mother) and Bryony Kimmings, she actually almost pulls it off. There are a lot of genuinely sweet moments but when the plot follows the song lyrics almost too literally, it feels somewhat contrived. Henry Golding stars opposite Clarke as the mysterious Tom, whose exuberant joie de vivre channels a bit of Gene Kelly in the London snow. Clarke is Kate, a serial dating ne’er-do-well who works at a year-round Christmas shop that sells the kitschiest holiday bric-a-brac and is owned by a female Asian Santa played by Michelle Yeoh.
If that sounds somewhat bizarre, it’s because it is. The whole film is permeated with some sort of off-kilter tone that’s about a half step away from reality. Kate works as Santa’s helper elf and has spiraled into a self-destructive cycle of bar hopping, one-night stands, and self-inflicted homelessness. She manages to implode her relationships with her friends to the point of being evicted from their couches. When she meets Tom, she’s finally run out of options but he persuades her to go back to her dysfunctional but loving family.
Tom and Kate share charming moments navigating the streets of a lesser-seen side of London. The ever-positive Tom, who delivers packages on a fixie and volunteers at a homeless shelter, entreats her to “look up” and changes her perspective of the city and her life. Because of his influence on her, Kate manages to course-correct her destructive ways and mends her relationships with her family and friends.
The film tries to cover a lot of bases, from the Brexit-referencing subplot of Kate’s Yugoslavian refugee family to her sister’s lesbian relationship to the plight of London’s homeless. There’s even the exceedingly strange romance between her boss and a creepy stalker (Peter Mygind) referred only to as “boy.” That bizarre relationship is out of place but provides some comical moments. Kate and Tom have an equally unusual relationship with the flaky Tom contrasting Kate’s phone addiction with his Luddite lack of one.
It’s a socially conscious rom-com with some bizarre, if not altogether predictable, twists, all the while trying to suffuse the story with Michael’s music. Andrew Ridgeley even makes a cameo, naturally, to complete the homage. Thompson had secured Michael’s blessing to do the film some time before he died, not ironically, on Christmas Day in 2016.
Homelessness was one of Michael’s advocacies and like Tom, the pop icon low key worked as a volunteer at shelters away from the scrutiny of the press. In a way, Kate and Tom represent both sides of the charismatic singer—Kate’s wild and promiscuous lifestyle reflected Michael’s often gossiped about life, while Tom’s kindness and volunteerism are inspired by his real-life social work and philanthropy.
It is this homage to one man’s kindness and compassion that elevates Last Christmas from the forgettably mundane to something just a little more special. Directed by Paul Feig, the film delivers enough charm to be a passable holiday film.
Clarke and Golding have chemistry but they’re never together long enough for it to shine through. With the plot hinging so much of Tom’s absence from Kate’s life in order for her to repair her relationships without his overt assistance, the two don’t share enough moments to crank up the romance. Instead, it becomes Kate’s journey of literal and spiritual healing which, one might suppose, is in keeping with the holiday spirit, anyway.
Last Christmas opens in theaters on November 27, Wednesday.