'Last Christmas' unwraps plot twist, but still takes predictable rom-com route
"Last Christmas" -- ★ ★
"Last Christmas" has a twist. If that is news to you, congratulations on evading the speculative realm of Twitter and Reddit since August, when the romantic comedy's overly revelatory trailer hit the internet. But don't fret -- there will be no spoilers here.
That said, it's difficult to contemplate the merits of "Last Christmas" without acknowledging the certainty that there's something fishy going on with Henry Golding's character, Tom. As the movie's marketing has made clear, the heartthrob sure seems to be hiding a secret from his smitten love interest, a self-destructive Christmas store employee named Kate (Emilia Clarke).
Does the mystery pay off? Apologies for being a Grinch, but no, it doesn't.
Taken at face value, "Last Christmas" is a charming enough entry into the holiday rom-com canon. Clarke and Golding are likable together, if not electric. Director Paul Feig manages a tone that's heavy on chuckles and light on belly laughs. Bryony Kimmings and Emma Thompson's script both honors and subverts the genre. But the possibility that there's more than meets the eye here casts a distracting shadow over the film. On closer scrutiny, the wintry magic of the movie's climax starts to melt.
This London-set yuletide tale follows Clarke's Kate, a 26-year-old Yugoslavian expat who emigrated as a child but sure speaks like she was born and raised in England. Although she's a George Michael fanatic with ambitions of singing in West End theater, a recent near-death experience has thrown Kate's life into dysfunction. When she's not bailing on doctor's appointments or dodging calls from her overbearing mother (Thompson), Kate is looking for a bed to crash on -- typically courtesy of one-night stands and her increasingly irritated friends.
When Golding's Tom abruptly appears at the Covent Garden shop where Kate works, she is, in true rom-com fashion, initially put off by his quirks. Who does this Manic Pixie Dream Boy think he is, skipping and spinning through the Christmas light-illuminated streets of London? Soon enough, Tom's cheerful worldview wins her over, even if his phone-free lifestyle limits their interactions to chance encounters. Along the way, Feig offers up the requisite London scenery and a parade of songs from Michael's song catalog, including myriad takes on the Wham! earworm that inspired the movie.
The last time viewers saw Clarke on-screen, she was giving her all selling a flaming mess of a story line on the final season of "Game of Thrones." She's more effortless as Kate, turning to the personable charisma she spent eight years suppressing in Westeros. Golding is still sufficiently suave a year removed from the breakout success of "Crazy Rich Asians."
The supporting cast is where Feig tends to decorate his films with wonderfully zany characters, and that's the case again here: A pair of bickering police officers (Ingrid Oliver and Laura Evelyn) are a delight, while Thompson gives herself the script's best one-liners. Michelle Yeoh most embraces the movie's Christmas cheer as Kate's impatient yet empathetic boss.
"Last Christmas" eventually reveals itself as a warmhearted story of trauma, survivors' guilt and reinvention. The refugee status of Kate's family adds another layer to her identity crisis, though the film's attempt to examine anti-immigrant sentiment in the wake of Brexit falls flat. In these sentimental moments, "Last Christmas" labors to turn the genre on its head and say more than your typical feel-good holiday flick. Somehow, Kate and Tom's story still finds a way to play out in painfully predictable fashion.
Think of that feeling when you unwrap a present and already know what's inside: Yes, it's the thought that counts, but there's something to be said for maintaining the surprise.
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Starring: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Emma Thompson
Directed by: Paul Feig
Other: A Universal Pictures release. Rated PG-13 for language and sexuality. 102 minutes