Last Christmas (2019)

Even though my reviews typically discuss practically everything about whatever I’m reviewing at the time, I try to avoid spoiler territory by not posting a review immediately after something comes out. If you follow movies, you probably already know the big [insert your adjective here] twist in the third act of Last Christmas.  If you don’t know about it, and don’t want me to spoil the surprise, stop reading now.

When Last Christmas was released in November 2019, I read a few spoilery reviews that gave away the surprise plot-twist in the third act.  At the time, I couldn’t help but think, “is that really what happens?”  I decided that I must see a movie with as crazy/surreal/insane a plot twist as what I’d read about.  A year went by, and I noticed the DVD for Last Christmas on the shelf at my local video store.  (Yes, they do still exist!)  Since I hadn’t yet watched any modern Christmas-themed movies this holiday season, I thought, why not?  I enjoy a goofy Christmas rom-com as much as the next person.  So I grabbed a copy of Last Christmas and checked out with nary a snicker from the lady behind the counter.  (Subtle plug: the folks at Family Video are the best.)

Eventually a night came between Christmas and New Year’s when my wife and I could watch Last Christmas.  The movie has a fairly straightforward plot for the first two acts.  Emilia Clarke (GoT) plays Katarina (or ‘Kate’ as she prefers to be called), a chipper goofball who works at a year-round Christmas store.  Michelle Yeoh plays her boss, ‘Santa’ (not her real name).  Santa needles Katarina constantly about not working or hardly working.  Katarina’s life outside the store consists of eating hamburgers, drinking excessively, having one-night stands, and pissing off the friend she’s living with at the time.  Sure doesn’t sound like a rom-com yet, does it?

In many ways, Last Christmas feels like it was written with a male lead in mind.  For example, in an early scene that would only happen in a rom-com, Katarina’s baroom conquest from the night before leaves to get breakfast.  While in the shower, the guy’s girlfriend takes off her clothes and rips open the shower curtain.  Both emit some surprise/panic screams, which seems odd since we’re dealing with an equivalency in equipment, if you know what I mean.  (Thank you, Seinfeld.)  I can think of probably ten man-child actors who could play the role of Katarina with ease (with a different name, for sure).  In an interesting creative decision, Last Christmas puts Emilia Clarke in the lead, and provides reasonable insight into her self-centered behavior.  A year earlier, Katarina became very sick, and received a heart transplant.  Since then, she feels unworthy of the second chance she received.  The hedonistic lifestyle she leads is her way of drowning out the uncertainty and guilt she feels at getting a second chance on life.  She’s a good singer, but she honestly doesn’t know if she’s good enough to be a professional.  I can understand the pressure one would feel having their lives extended at the cost of someone else’s.

While working at the Christmas shop, Katarina notices a tall, handsome stranger outside the Christmas shop.  She goes outside to playfully harass him.  He tells her to look up at something interesting, and a bird promptly poops in her eye.  Tom Wilson (the handsome stranger) tells her that that is good luck.  I know, having a bird poop on someone is never a “meet cute” but in the movies. However, Tom’s optimism at the good omen lessens Katarina’s embarrassment.  Over the course of several dates, he shows her hidden gems around London that he’s fond of: a restaurant with a huge grasshopper sign, a hidden garden, a narrow alley nicknamed the “fat-man’s squeeze”.  I should mention that the London on display here is so shiny and colorful, I thought that the cast was in a new Euro Disney park.  (If London really is this shiny and colorful, residents of London can definitely take me to task in the comments section!)

Tom’s good nature and decency helps to pull Katarina out of her aimless life filled with bad choices.  When Tom’s not riding his bike, he glide-walks like a ballroom dancer.  He helps her learn to ice skate for an audition, and introduces her to a homeless shelter where he volunteers.  Having confessed to Tom she’s run out of friends that will let her crash at their place, Tom convinces Katarina to reach out to her family.  Throughout the first act, Katarina has been declining her mother’s phone calls.  With nowhere else to go, Katarina heads home.  As the saying goes, home is the place where they have to take you in.  Petra (Emma Thompson), her mother, gladly welcomes her home.  Thompson overplays her role a bit, layering on a Yugoslavic accent a bit too thick.  She has several funny moments in the movie, though, which makes up for her schtick.

After a disastrous family dinner, Katarina seeks out Tom, who listens to her problems.  The two share a passionate kiss.  Later, back at Tom’s apartment, she confesses to Tom about her illness and heart transplant.  Katarina offers to take their relationship to the next level, but Tom declines.  I’m 100% certain that has never happened to anyone who looks like Ms. Clarke in real life, but the movie will explain why this was not practical before long.  Armed with a more positive outlook, Katarina begins pulling her life together.  She has a successful audition and helps Santa connect with a lovestruck shopper.  She makes amends with her friends and begins singing Christmas carols outside of the homeless shelter for spare change.

When Katarina goes back to Tom’s apartment, she finds that it is being shown for prospective renters.  The agent reveals the previous occupant as Wilson, and Katarina realizes that Tom is the person who donated his heart to her.  A montage reveals that all of the scenes prior where Tom and Katarina interacted was just her alone.  (The kissing scene is not revisited, because I guess there would be no way to make that scene look normal with one person basically kissing air.)  Katarina goes back to the hidden garden and Tom reappears.  He says that she can feel him physically because his heart is inside her.  (Does this happen to everyone who gets a heart transplant?  The idea of having a relationship with your organ donor is strange, to say the least.)  The movie ends with a Christmas pageant at the homeless shelter, where Katarina sings “Last Christmas” by Wham.  I neglected to mention that the movie is filled with songs by Wham and George Michael.  (You may want to skip this movie if excessive George Michael-ness triggers into uncontrollable hip shaking and gyrating.)

At this point, you’re probably wondering if I liked Last Christmas or not.  I admit that I did, and I shall explain myself plainly as I can.  Yes, the romance between Katarina and Tom is utterly inconceivable and makes no sense.  Yes, the movie has cliches to spare.  Yes, the movie ends with a Christmas pageant.  (There should be a movie just about a Christmas pageant.  There probably is, and I just don’t know about it!)

Last Christmas works in spite of its contrivances and ridiculous plot twist because of the performances by the two leads.  Henry Golding is completely charming and guileless as Tom.  He’s always smiling and friendly, always looking up to see something cool.  (Unfortunately, looking up is what got him killed, but hey, go with me here.)  I have not seen Crazy Rich Asians, which appeared to be his breakout role.  Based on his performance here, I would say it takes a lot of talent to transcend material like this.  Which brings me to his co-star.

Emilia Clarke is completely winning in the role of Katarina.  Freed from the stentorian line readings that Game of Thrones often required of her, she appears to be having a great time in the movie.  The movie is really a showpiece for her.  While her character is careless with her friends and makes bad choices, I never got the feeling that she was a sitcom character.  Katarina is self-aware: she knows she’s making bad choices but doesn’t care.  She’s reckless, and self-destructive, but never in a way that feels like a caricature.  Thankfully, Katarina is not a pretty clutz, which is what all female rom-com characters seem to be.  Clarke looks invigorated by the roll. She clearly is having a blast playing a character who is both incredibly funny and full of rough edges.  Instead of the stentorian line readings she had to give as Daenerys, she gets to crack-wize and make saucy jokes.  And she sings a lot in the movie, and actually does have a good voice.

After unconvincing turns in franchise retreads (Terminator: Genesys and Solo: A Star Wars Story), Clarke seems much better suited to comedy.  Her turn in Me Before You was proof of that, but I’m guessing her GoT bonafides keep the sci-fi/fantasy roles coming her way.  While I doubt she would eschew the large payoffs of franchises, I hope that she picks those roles a bit more carefully in the future, and keeps her schedule open for the occasional wacky film like Last Christmas.

Aside from the two leads being attractive and charming as all get out, I liked the movie’s underlying messages of love and acceptance.  If you don’t love yourself, you probably don’t give a rip about anyone else.  Who cares if you accidentally electrocute your flatmate’s fish?  Or set a huge paper model of a ship on fire?  What’s the big deal?  Katarina also has been unable to accept the startling change in her life, so she tries to avoid dealing with it by treating her life and the lives of her friends frivolously.  Once she gets over her self-doubt and guilt over being alive, her life improves dramatically.  The emotional complexity of Last Christmas is not what you’d typically see in a rom-com.
So why am I giving this movie a pass on having a character that is essentially a figment of another character’s imagination, when I pretty much excoriated The Midnight Sky for doing the same thing?  When it comes to accepting the unbelievable, or the incredible, context is everything.  When it comes to rom-coms, I’ve seen many that have a plot point that makes no sense in the real world.  For example, Love, Actually has plenty of unbelievable plot points in it, but I’m willing to go along with them because they are secondary to the main ingredients.  We see rom-coms for the laughs and the tears and the warm, emotion-filled moments, not tick-tock logic that defies scrutiny.  If you’re looking for realism in a rom-com, you’re looking in the wrong place.  If you leave your rational part of your brain behind you, there’s plenty to enjoy in Last Christmas.

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