Updated: Feb 9, 2020
Last Christmas is a holiday themed romantic comedy about an angry woman who begins a tentative relationship with a mysterious, eternally hopeful, man she meets outside her work. It contains a dash of political commentary, sweetness, humor, a little romance and the music of George Michael (the title comes from one of his songs). As I always say, the success of a romantic comedy depends entirely on the likability of its stars. Here it is Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding, both charming. Golding’s Tom holds too much back to fully connect; the movie keeps him enigmatic to preserve its secrets (I will return to that later). Due to this, they do not have a ton of chemistry together. However, Clarke picks up enough of the slack playing a lovable, flawed, sad person, who needs to rediscover her joy for living. Add in a good supporting cast and some decent jokes and you have a pleasant diversion. For the most part.
As the story begins, Kate has just been kicked out of her London flat and is looking for someplace to stay. She works at a Christmas store, where she does the bare minimum to get through the day, while dreaming of becoming a singer. Then she meets Tom and is intrigued by his oddness and optimism. Will she find happiness, fall in love and reconnect with her family? You will get no spoilers on that front from me.
I will start with what I enjoyed the most, which are three of the main performances. Clarke is sweet and endearing as the prickly Kate. She is a woman who avoids so much, at her job, from her friends and from her difficult family, that it takes something special to make her realize she is forcing herself to be unhappy. She struggles with the tonal whiplash, but keeps things afloat decently enough until the clumsy ending. Michelle Yeoh is also fun as her boss, who calls herself Santa. She is hard on Kate, yet tolerates her laziness because she cares about her. I liked their scenes together. She has a few funny lines before getting sidetracked with a subplot that does not go anywhere.
Emma Thompson (who also produced/co-wrote) has the most complicated role as Petra, Kate’s mom. Their family came to London from Yugoslavia when Kate was young, forcing Petra and her husband to give up everything to make a better life for their two girls. She is blunt, judgmental and over attentive, possibly because she worries that what they have could always be taken away. Last Christmas takes place around Christmas 2017 and shoehorns in some stuff about Brexit. There is a tendency these days to include topical elements into a screenplay, even if it does not fit. That is the case here. Despite a few scenes where it is discussed, it has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Thompson is funny and there was definitely a way to go deeper with their relationship in a way that complimented the story without the Brexit material, which only distracts from Kate’s emotional journey.
Okay, so now I want to talk about what the screenplay does with Tom. I will attempt to tread carefully, however there may be slight SPOILERS, so read the following paragraph at your own risk if you plan on seeing this.
Tom is a fairly generic romantic comedy nice guy, popping up to help Kate figure out her life. He disappears for long periods of time, seeming to show up only when she really needs him. We learn very little about him, so this way the late revelation can have the maximum impact. It sacrifices any chance at a real connection between the two characters in favor of trying to surprise its audience into emotion at the end. Perhaps, if the ending worked, it would have been worth it. Sadly, it does not. There is far too much left unresolved to be satisfied by the way things wrap up. Clarke and Golding would probably have been better served by a more straightforward romance, or one that thought through the implications of its twist. In some instances, it is a spoiler to even say there is a twist. Here, it is blindingly obvious something is up (I correctly guessed it very early on, though it seems like a lot of people guessed it after seeing the trailer).
End SPOILER warning
Last Christmas (97 minutes without the end credits) is enjoyable when it is not being frustrating. Clarke is appealing, Thompson and Yeoh bring welcome depth and the filmmakers are successful at making London look magical. I know some people will be furious with the conclusion. I do not blame them. Admittedly, I dropped my rating a little just due to how it was executed. There is enough here for a mild recommendation. But be warned: this feel-good comedy may not leave you feeling as good as you hope.
3 out of 5
Emilia Clarke as Kate
Henry Golding as Tom
Emma Thompson as Petra
Michelle Yeoh as Santa
Lydia Leonard as Marta
Directed by Paul Feig
Screenplay by Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings