Film Review: ‘Last Christmas’ Invites Us to Look Up

Last Christmas

The holidays are a great time for romance. As the skies turn grey-white and the sweaters come out of their bins, it’s a perfect time to snuggle up with the one you love. Perhaps that’s why so many romantic comedies take place during the holidays.

And now comes “Last Christmas,” a wintry tale of Christmas cheer from director Paul Feig. Best known for his laugh-out-loud, female-centric comedies like “Bridesmaids,” “Spy,” and “Ghostbusters: Answer the Call,” the director has lately shifted away from his overtly hilarious movies into something different. Last year, it was the soapy mystery, “A Simple Favor,” with Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick. This year, Feig teams up with Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding for something unlike any of his previous films.

Clarke stars as Kate, a refugee from the former Yugoslavia who was brought to England by her parents when she was young. Her mother, Petra (Emma Thompson, who also co-wrote the script), still harbors the fears and resentments that come with being forced from your homeland, and some of that has been passed on to her daughters. Kate works in a year-round Christmas shop where her boss, “Santa” (Michelle Yeoh), nags and picks at her in ways even her mother doesn’t. Kate is miserable and lonely and looks for solace in all the wrong places. Her life is a mess and spiraling out of control as she surfs from one friend’s couch to another. Everything about Kate has felt wrong since a year ago when she had a life-saving operation that should have made her better, but somehow made her worse.

We last saw Emilia Clarke turning into the Mad Queen in HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” though she’s been building her film career steadily since the series debuted in 2011. She has the sort of charm that you want to root for, and she brings that quality to “Last Christmas.” Even when Kate makes terrible decisions that will clearly lead to disastrous consequences, you still want what’s best for her, and that is entirely because of Clarke’s effervescence.

One day, Kate meets Tom (Golding), a mystery man who comes and goes at his own convenience. Tom is charming and too good to be true, much like Golding himself. Their meet-cute and subsequent flirtation lack the pizzazz one might expect from a traditional rom com, though it is nevertheless delightful to watch them simply try to out-charm one another.

Not unlike Tom, Henry Golding seemed to come out of nowhere last year, showing up as the lead in “Crazy Rich Asians” as his feature debut. He immediately followed it up with a supporting role as Blake Lively’s husband in Paul Feig’s “A Simple Favor.” To star in the director’s very next film as the romantic lead makes perfect sense, but it once again begs the question: where was Henry Golding for all those years?

One of the things that makes Paul Feig an interesting storyteller is his ability to subvert expectations, and tell a story that isn’t exactly the one you thought you were going to get. “Last Christmas” sets itself up as a traditional romantic comedy, and those elements are present. The resulting film is only a little romantic and is more often serious than funny. Perhaps it falls short of its intention, or maybe the audience falls victim to a bit of marketing bait-and-switch.

What we get, instead, is a life lesson from Tom, whose mantra is “Look up.” He teaches Kate to look beyond herself, to stop focusing inward, and to find beauty in unexpected places. Their budding romance is lily white in its chastity, and never crackles with the chemistry we’re used to in this particular genre. But it doesn’t have to in order to drive home the point of the story. This isn’t a tale of finding love, it’s one of learning to love. And in that, it succeeds.

Michelle Yeoh is funny as Santa, Kate’s Christmas-obsessed boss with plenty of mean zingers for her increasingly careless employee. Yeoh makes the character work, even though it feels a little less passionate than it probably should. She has her own budding romance that is weird and quirky and heartwarming instead of creepy, which is entirely because of Yeoh’s own spunk.

Emma Thompson might be the funniest part of the cast, mostly because most of us can relate in some way to the overbearing mother that always has to voice her opinions. But similar to Yeoh’s Santa, Petra really only works because Thompson is such a gift to the screen. She keeps it from devolving too deeply into cliche.

The script co-written by Thompson and Bryony Kimmings doesn’t crackle with perfect dialogue, but it is earnest and heartfelt, and has plenty to say about life and living. Once the target audience gets past the idea that this isn’t the cookie cutter rom com they were expecting, “Last Christmas” will live on. It has the potential to be one we still turn to ten Christmases from now. Such is the magic of Paul Feig. He knows how to make movies that stay with us.

“Last Christmas” is distributed by Universal and is now playing nationwide.

GRADE: (★★★)