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Review: Happy Christmas (2014)

Happy Christmas (2014)

Directed by: Joe Swanberg

Premise: During the holiday season an irresponsible young woman (Anna Kendrick) moves in with her brother and sister-in-law and their infant son.

What Works: Happy Christmas was written and directed by Joe Swanberg, a filmmaker whose work is typically low key and naturalistic. This picture is consistent with Swanberg’s other films and his style allows for actors to give very nuanced performances, revealing a lot about their characters through what is spoken and unspoken and through little behavioral ticks. Admirably, Swanberg allows his characters to be less than perfect and the characters frequently make credible mistakes and suffer from recognizably human flaws. In addition, Swanberg’s films have a cinema verite style and so his movies take on the look of a fly-on-the-wall documentary that creates an impression of reality. Happy Christmas takes the viewer into the lives of three people: Jenny, a young woman played by Anna Kendrick, and married couple Kelly and Jeff played by Melanie Lynskey and Joe Swanberg. Kendrick is cast against type. She frequently plays sassy sidekicks but her character in Happy Christmas is a mess and Kendrick plays the role without falling into the stereotypes of alcoholics. Also impressive is Melanie Lynskey who allows the stress of new motherhood to come across subtly in her performance and the exasperation Kelly feels toward Jenny plays very effectively though a lot of small moments.

What Doesn’t: The trouble with Happy Christmas is that all of its little moments don’t lead to a significant payoff or at least coalesce as a whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts. This is sometimes the problem of behavioral-based filmmaking; the filmmakers are so interested in capturing something real that they sacrifice the narrative structure that makes a movie satisfying. Happy Christmas is too lightweight and it’s poorly conceived. The film is ostensibly about Jenny as she moves in with the couple and disrupts their lives. However, Jenny does not really change nor does the audience come to any meaningful understandings about her that we wouldn’t have figured out within her first few scenes. The problem is that Happy Christmas is built around Jenny and yet she is not the main character; Kelly, the new mother and struggling writer played by Melanie Lynskey, is the true protagonist of this film. She is the character who changes from one end of the story to the other and she reaches an epiphany about herself and life in general that Jenny never even comes close to achieving. The filmmakers don’t seem to have understood that or they intended to make a very different kind of movie than they ended up with. Part of the problem may be the casting of Anna Kendrick as Jenny. Kendrick is a movie star and she brings the noise of celebrity with her. She is also such a watchable screen presence that most other actors seem less interesting while sharing a scene with her and the naturalistic filmmaking style does not redirect our attention back to Kelly. One of the ironies of this movie is that Anna Kendrick gives a good performance but she is ultimately miscast in the role. As a woman who is irresponsible and a borderline alcoholic, Jenny should be a much messier character but Kendrick gives off an impression of order; she is always well spoken and her appearance is always hip and together even when she’s high or recovering from a bender. More than anything, Happy Christmas suffers because there is no tension. Nothing is at stake. No one in the film ever risks anything is or at risk of losing something. Even the most severe blow up between Jenny and her family is even tempered and little comes of it. The point may be the study of Jenny’s character, but even in that case there is too little here to make this a satisfying viewing. 

Bottom Line: Happy Christmas is well acted but it has nothing at its center holding it together. The film is poorly conceived and executed and it comes across vacuous and self-indulgent.

Episode: #501 (July 27, 2014)