By John H. Foote
“Last Christmas, I gave you my heart…”
Do not forget that lyric watching this film, never ever let it out of your mind, in fact, burn it into your brain, take it literally.
Romantic comedies exist only if there is genuine heat, lust between the two leads, without it, the film has no pulse, it is dead. You’ve Got Mail (1998), Something About Mary (1998) and Something’s Gotta Give (2003) all had heat, there was a genuine lust between the characters, and without it the film is dead on arrival.
In Paul Feig’s limp new Christmas romance that is precisely the problem, well actually one of many. There is in the film a huge twist which, frankly, I had figured out long before the reveal. Watch closely, and listen to the song, you too will figure it out, it was not that hard to do.
Consider what we know about Kate (Emilia Clarke), the edgy, spiky heroine of the film. Fleeing Yugoslavia, leaving a war torn home for the life she now lives in Dickensian London, England, we learn very quickly she suffers PTSD. She has one-night stands with men she would usually have nothing to do with, has a fractured relationship with her overbearing mother, and keeps everyone she meets at a safe distance. We discover a few months earlier she had a major surgery, and is living out her second chance at life, doing exactly as she pleases.
Or is she?
Kate works dressed as an elf in one of those year-round Christmas shops but is hardly warm and fuzzy with the glee filled customers walking in off the street.
But then Tom (Henry Golding) meets her. Tom is a strange dude, living his life with no phone, seemingly the same set of clothes day after day after day, and never seems to have anyone else near him. He volunteers at a soup kitchen for the less fortunate, he says, and comes and goes as he pleases.
“Last Christmas, I gave you my heart…”
When with Tom they talk and walk, walk and talk, there is no heat, no real friction between the pair, but Kate feels better with him around. It is as if apart of his joy is within her when they are together.
By this point, I had guessed the big twist and it was not so big at all.
For me, far too much effort went into making the film cute, precious, even adorable and it fails to work. It especially fails because there are moments of intense heartbreak shown – life in Yugoslavia, and Kate’s angry relationship with her accusatory mother, willing to abuse her daughter with emotional guilt trips. What is light suddenly goes very dark and you wonder where it is all going?
Though the twist is indeed dark, what exactly happened last Christmas has a devastating impact on both lead characters but by the time it is revealed, I had it.
Clarke absolutely rocked her role as Daenerys, Mother of Dragons on HBO’s superb Game of Thrones, throwing lustful sparks with Jason Momoa and Kit Herrington. Here she is sometimes adorable, a lovely, goofy presence, wrapped in anger and seething rage, but really given no character to portray. Instead she is a cliché, and the actress deserves so much more.
Golding is even worse, a cipher, and not a character.
Emma Thompson, who co-wrote the original screenplay, also portrays Katie’s bitter, war scarred mother, and I am shocked such a great actress and writer did not write herself a better role. Thompson obviously has the skill as both actress and screen writer, having won Oscars for both, but there is no evidence of it here.
Feig directs as though he is attempting to make a love story and comedy crossed with The Sixth Sense … resulting in something simply awful.
Nearly unwatchable folks, sorry. Not even the Yuletide elements will save this one.
Humbug. A big fat HUMBUG!
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”