Paul Feig needs to settle down. Since creating NBC’s cult hour-long dramedy Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000) with Judd Apatow, the writer-director-producer has ricocheted from the Holocaust drama I Am David (2003) to countless prestige TV director-for-hire gigs to a quartet of Melissa McCarthy comedies. The first of those four, Kristen Wiig’s Bridesmaids (2011), earned back its budget tenfold — ergo, Feig could now be considered a serious director. Action comedies The Heat (2013) and Spy (2015) were equally successful additions to his burgeoning tracklist of big-budget, female-centric blockbusters, making it seem as if Feig had finally found his niche. Then, after the underwhelming box office of his gender-swapped Ghostbusters: Answer the Call (2016), Feig started pinballing around again — a man in search of his niche once more.
His latest, Last Christmas, comes a year after his strangely effective mommy vlogger thriller (?) A Simple Favor (2018). In truth, this is the second Christmas movie of his career, the first being the forgettable tween airport comedy (?!) Unaccompanied Minors (2006). For this outing, Feig has teamed up with a pair of quintessentially British writers — husband-and-wife duo Emma Thompson and Greg Wise — to help him coax forth some Christmas spirit. The question of why Feig is helming something so fundamentally British remains unanswered, but it’s a query that applies to most of the director’s works: Why is Feig at the forefront of this all-female wedding comedy? Why is Feig in charge of a distaff reboot of Ghostbusters? It’s admirable to give female performers and screenwriters a boost, but it’s strangely wrongheaded for Feig to automatically assume he’s always the right man for the director’s chair, no matter the genre or subject matter. By taking on this cynical cardiac Christmas movie (?!?), Feig’s foolhardy tendencies have never been more apparent.
Last Christmas establishes its main character, Katarina (Emilia Clarke), by opening with a scene of her as a young girl (Madison Ingoldsby) singing in a youth choir in Yugoslavia. In case someone walks in late, the film needlessly and repeatedly reminds the audience she’s Yugoslavian throughout its 102 minutes. Flashing forward to present day, Katarina — now Kate — is living in London as a result of the Yugoslav Wars. Technically homeless because she refuses to live with her mother and father (Emma Thompson and Boris Isakovic), Kate finds herself utterly alone in the city where her family was forced to settle. To make matters worse, she’s been clumsy, unlucky, and flat-out selfish ever since she fell ill about a year ago. Caring very little for those in her immediate circle, from her boss (Michelle Yeoh) to her sister (Lydia Leonard) to her short-lived romantic partners, Kate’s sturdiest relationship is the one she has with disaster.
In a meet-cute that feels as organic as any romantic interaction in this era of focus-grouped, test-tube-bred, mass-market romances at the multiplex, Kate encounters Tom (Henry Golding) outside the Christmas-themed shop where she works/performs at as an elf. The two share a bit of contrived dialogue, pause for a bout of gross-out humor, then part ways. Later on, he runs into her again inside the store. Starting to suspect that he’s some sort of stalker, Kate is determined to resist Tom’s obvious charms. However, as these things tend to play out, the universe keeps putting Kate and Tom in the same place at the same time. His uniquely positive outlook on life and his moral aptitude — He volunteers at the homeless shelter! And she’s a couch surfer, so that’s meaningful to her! — makes him simply irresistible to her. The only problem is that Tom keeps disappearing without warning. Where does he keep running off to? What’s he hiding? Kate is set on cracking him… no matter how hard external factors like lingering health problems and clumsy political woes might try to keep them apart.
To be frank, Last Christmas makes the typical Hallmark holiday movie look like refined arthouse fare. Thompson and Wise have crafted a truly objectionable holiday movie, an ugly reflection of our current times complete with moments that simultaneously honor and skewer racism, the migrant crisis, Brexit, healthcare (of both the mind and the body), homelessness, and the LGBTQIA+ community, just to name some of the hot-topic square pegs being forced into the round hole of a Christmas romcom. Like Feig’s determination to raise up female voices by assigning himself the role of permanent team captain, it’s somewhat commendable that Thompson and Wise felt the need to tackle every single hot-button issue with something as inconsequential as a mid-budget holiday movie. Chronic illness and mental health could use some more time in the spotlight, and, in this respect at least, Last Christmas doesn’t fall short in terms of good intentions. Nonetheless, this earnest topicality doesn’t work in the holly-jolly romcom context — not in the slightest.
Somehow overly pessimistic and sickeningly sweet at the same time, it’s hard to imagine Last Christmas connecting with anyone, or becoming the holiday classic its hopeful ad campaign already envisions. Who could possibly enjoy a movie-going experience akin to watching the Grinch and George Bailey falling in love? In truth, even that dissonant mashup sounds more enjoyable than the romance that plays out on-screen here. Those looking for the escapism provided by such holiday classics as It’s A Wonderful Life (1947) or A Christmas Story (1983) will be disappointed to find a film with a case of Rotten World Syndrome, while others seeking a cheery December jaunt in the same vein as Elf (2003) or The Holiday (2006) will be frustrated with Last Christmas’ cynical perspective on love during the holiday season. At least the hokey schmaltz of a Hallmark or Lifetime movie is from a place of unwavering commitment — no one is trying to be clever or subversive or relevant. That sort of modest, unpretentious holiday spirit is something that Last Christmas desperately needs. Regardless, Feig is already onto his next gig: a comedy written by Kim Rosenstock about an all-female tech startup. By next Christmas, Last Christmas will be just another blip on his flickering string of lights.