Not all Christmas movies need to be great art. The Hallmark Channel, Lifetime and even Netflix have proven that for every The Bishop’s Wife or It’s a Wonderful Life, there’s also a place for improbable romantic cheese involving holiday spirit and a strategically placed sprig of mistletoe. Sometimes, you just need something sweet.
The Paul Feig-directed, Emma Thompson-penned Last Christmas fits that candy-cane-colored niche pretty nicely. It’s fairly silly and predictable, and eagle-eyed viewers can accurately guess the plot twist just by watching the trailers. However, this Christmas-themed rom-com also contains a legitimately touching message of goodwill and self betterment that, along with its snappy dialogue and a fun performance by star Emilia Clarke, puts it a cut above most of its basic cable and streaming relatives.
Twenty-six-year-old Kate (Clarke) divides her time between singing auditions, one-night stands and a job in a Christmas decor shop. Since an undisclosed major illness a year ago, she’s had a strained relationship with her Yugoslavian immigrant family, particularly her overbearing mother (Thompson). Rather than live at home with them, Kate couch hops, bringing carelessness and destruction to a series of friends’ flats, wearing out their patience with each new disaster.
A few weeks before Christmas, Kate runs into Tom (Henry Golding) outside her store. Tom’s an attractive and endlessly positive young man, and selfless, too — he spends nights volunteering at a local homeless shelter. Despite Kate’s bleak worldview and endless sarcasm, Tom sticks around, and Kate falls for him. Over the course of their relationship, he gets Kate to start making healthier life choices and consider others’ needs and feelings. For reasons that kind of make sense but mostly feel contrived, it all happens against a backdrop of George Michael songs (Last Christmas isn’t a jukebox musical, but it wouldn’t require much work to make it one).
There are a lot of elements in Last Christmas that don’t quite make it together into a cohesive whole. For instance, there’s an underbaked subplot involving Brexit anxiety that you can feel Thompson and co-writer Bryony Kimmings straining to make prominent, but this movie just doesn’t feel like the place to do so. There’s the mystery of Tom, who’s never around consistently, and is suspiciously hard to reach. There’s also drama between Kate and her friends, drama about Kate’s immigrant background, and drama related to Kate’s unresolved trauma regarding her illness. That’s a lot to pack into a film under two hours. As a result, Last Christmas often feels unfocused.
Despite all this, the transformation that Kate’s relationship with Tom kicks off is honestly moving, which is due almost entirely to Clarke’s performance. She somehow manages to really sell Kate as a struggling soul in need of unconditional love, and once she gets it, she’s able to turn around and love herself and others. Many lesser Christmas romance movies would make that selfless transformation all in the service of getting the guy, but Last Christmas, thankfully, doesn’t do that. Instead, it sends the message that doing good is worth it just for the sake of becoming a better person and making the world a little nicer.
Last Christmas isn’t really aspiring to be much more than a fizzy good holiday time, and that much it achieves. But it’s also trying to be something a little more, so much so that the movie overstuffs itself on plot to the point that it breaks the limiting framework it’s trying to work within. However, that effort still deserves a little appreciation. It’s nice to see a goofy holiday romance that advocates for actual selflessness, showing the good it can do for us as well as those we help. Even if the rest of the movie is something of a mess, that’s an honorable sentiment.