It’s a Wonderful Life meets The Sixth Sense in one of this year’s first holiday movies, Last Christmas. A hodgepodge of romantic comedy and drama bathed in a George Michael soundtrack, it’s the kind of movie you’d expect to see on the Hallmark Channel.
Last Christmas is about Kate (Emilia Clarke), a young woman whose life is a small-time horror show of one-night stands, burnt bridges, tardiness, halfhearted remorse, alienation from her mother Petra, and all-around irresponsibility. The rift with her mother (two-time Academy Award winner Emma Thompson) seems understandable because Petra appears to suffer from Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. Kate once had heart trouble, and her mother smothers her with TLC long after she has recovered. But the rest is on Kate.
When she meets Tom (Henry Golding), her life takes a turn for the better. For Kate, it seems too good to be true. And the viewer begins to wonder if this movie is too trite to be true. As she drifts through her life, and Tom drops into and out of it, Last Christmas seems to be dancing around the inevitable rom-com question: Will they fall in love and live happily ever after, or won’t they? Yet director Paul Feig, who was nominated for four Primetime Emmys for his work on Freaks and Geeks and The Office, steers it away from the formulaic cliff and offers a denouement that’s both surprising and satisfying. This movie seems to strike the occasional false note from time to time, but they all make sense in the end. When the ingenious plot twist is revealed, you will smack your forehead and say, in your best Charlie Brown voice, “Aaaarrrggghhh!!! It was there all along!”
Clarke is undoubtedly familiar to Game of Thrones fans. Her portrayal of Daenerys Targaryen has won her half a dozen awards and nominations for another 40-plus, including four Primetime Emmy noms. As Kate, she etches a convincing portrait of an unsympathetic chippie with few, if any, redeeming values.
Henry Golding plays Tom, the Nice Young Man, who keeps popping up in Kate’s life and saving her from her most self-destructive impulses. His Tom is the Mister Right of whom every girl’s mother dreams. Golding made a promising big-screen debut, which netted him a CinemaCon Award and six additional nominations, as Singaporean multi-millionaire Nick Young in last year’s Crazy Rich Asians.
Speaking of which, onetime Bond girl Michelle Yeoh (Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997), the actress who played Nick Young’s mother, appears here as the owner of the Christmas shop where Kate works. She is the focus of a charming subplot in which she falls in love at first sight with an attractive yet painfully shy Dane (Peter Mygind). Less haughty than she was as Eleanor Young, but still swift to find fault with an imperfect world, she shows more of the flair for comedy at which Crazy Rich Asians only hinted. Some of the laughs she mines, like the irony of an Asian woman named Santa running a Christmas shop, are low-hanging fruit, but she’s funny nevertheless.
Emma Thompson continues to display her versatility as Petra, a middle-aged Yugoslavian refugee living a lower-middle-class life in England. In addition to feigning a passable Eastern European accent, she co-wrote both the story and the screenplay. The quality of the writing is not surprising, considering that Thompson won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her screenplay for Sense and Sensibility.
This movie’s tagline, “Sometimes you’ve just gotta have faith,” seems particularly apt. For despite its rom-com clichés and occasional corniness, Last Christmas will ultimately make you a believer.