Romantic comedies and dramas are few and far between these days, so when a decent one does come along, it’s generally worth celebrating, even if it’s just so-so. Such is the case with Last Christmas. Will it become an instant Christmas classic, ala Love Actually, Elf, or It’s a Wonderful Life? Extremely doubtful. Will it satisfy a minor craving for holiday heartache and cheer, with a splash of meet-cute? Absolutely. It’s a step above Hallmark and Lifetime (and straight-to-Netflix) fare, though not a giant leap.
In case you had any doubt, it’s true: Last Christmas the movie was “inspired by” Last Christmas the song– a classic and catchy George Michael/Wham! ballad that has little to do with Christmas, and everything to do with busted relationships. (EARWORM ALERT!)
Last Christmas, I gave you my heart
But the very next day you gave it away
This year, to save me from tears
I’ll give it to someone special
So how to build a plot – and an entire movie – around that? You bring in a highly respected and versatile British talent like Emma Thompson to co-write and co-star. You find a director like Paul Feig who deftly mixed comedy and drama in films like A Simple Favor, Spy, and Bridesmaids. You find two endearing leads in Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones, Me Before You) and Henry Golding (A Simple Favor, Crazy Rich Asians), throw in a scene-stealer like Michelle Yeoh (Crazy Rich Asians), and set the whole thing on the atmospheric streets of London at Christmastime.
Last Christmas takes a few (way too obvious) twists and turns that must remain under wraps. But here’s the gist, spoiler-free: The film begins in 1990s Yugoslavia, with angelic Katarina singing in a church choir as her parents and sister look on with adoration. Fast-forward to London, 2017 and Katarina is now “Kate” (Clarke), a hot mess of a young woman who is celebrating her recovery from a serious ailment by acting recklessly and selfishly. She’s constantly crashing with friends to avoid going home to an overbearing mother (Thompson); She’s big on one-night stands; And she’s barely hanging on to her job as an Elf at “Yuletide Wonderful,” a year-round Christmas shop run by a tough but fair Chinese woman who goes by the name “Santa” (Yeoh).
Life is one giant disappointment after another for Kate. And then, she meets Tom (Golding). He’s a cute, charming, sensitive, too-good-to-be-true kind of guy who always shows up when Kate needs him most, but also has a mysterious side. He doesn’t carry a phone. He volunteers nights at a mission for the homeless. And he’s always urging Kate to “look up” and smell the roses. (Note: whenever he suggested she look up, I couldn’t help but think of that scene from ‘An Affair to Remember’ when Terry tells Nickie, “I was looking up…” You know the one – or at least you should if you want to see what a truly classic romantic drama looks like!)
The Last Christmas screenplay from Thompson (Sense and Sensibility, Bridget Jones’s Baby) and playwright Bryony Kimmings aims a bit higher than the standard RomCom, tackling issues involving family dynamics and forgiveness, socio-economics in the wake of the Brexit vote, and the proliferation of homelessness. But they don’t always coalesce with moments of pure cheesiness, a bizarre meet-cute involving “Santa” and a sauerkraut magnate, and an undercurrent of songs from ’80s pop icon George Michael (and Wham!) to punctuate key scenes. The playlist includes: Too Funky, Fantasy, Praying for Time, Faith, Waiting for that Day, Heal the Pain, One More Try, Everything She Wants, Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, Move On, Freedom!, and a never-before-released song called “This Is How (We Want You to Get High).”
George Michael signed off on the premise when creative development got underway about 10 years ago. Sadly, and somewhat ironically, he died on Christmas Day 2016. If nothing else, Last Christmas gives his music a new lease on life.
And who knew Emilia Clarke could sing?!