I don’t really like Christmas movies. They’re overly charming and not in a way that is authentic. And the ones in the romantic comedy genre are more focused on shoehorning as much Christmas as they can to make the love story as quirky as possible. That said, Last Christmas, from director Paul Feig, isn’t any of those things. In fact, this holiday rom-com is sincere, hilarious, and uses Christmas as an important part of the story without making the holiday cheer outshine its narrative and actors.
Last Christmas stars Kate (Emilia Clarke) as a woman who is set on filling her life with bad decisions. Binge drinking, avoiding home, ruining her friendships with the people she relies on for shelter, and oh course only thinking about herself in every situation. From work to family. Kate only knows how to center herself, even it means pushing everyone around away, opting for one-night stands instead of building meaningful relationships.
But, her job as an elf in Santas’ (Michelle Yeoh) Christmas store is the one thing she has going for her, the one constant throughout her life that’s consistently in flux. However, when she meets Tom (Henry Golding) outside the Yuletide shop, her life takes a new turn. Tom makes her better, he makes her care, and Kate is left to question why.
Their relationship in Last Christmas, is an emotional one, and a romantic one. From their meet-cute to their first night together, there isn’t a moment where Clarke and Golding don’t completely click on the screen. Their chemistry is undeniable. Tom and Kate are adorable with enough sexual tension and romance to keep from being a tropey, quirky couple. Yes, Kate is a mess. Yes, Tom is a good guy. But Last Christmas‘s narrative, from Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings, never once makes you believe that Kate is irredeemable, or that Tom is too good for her.
This is due in large part to the undercurrent of pain that Kate carries with her in every scene. She doesn’t do unlikable things because she’s purposefully mean, she does them because she doesn’t know what else to do. Kate is lost and desperately trying to get back on track with her life after recovering from an illness. Finding comfort in George Michael’s songs, there isn’t much she knows how to do anymore. Like Santa’s comments, she used to be good at her job, good with people, and then everything changed.
Throughout the film, Kate comments on her mom’s inability to cope with her getting better. Painting her mother as selfish, as needing her to be sick. But as Last Christmas continues, it becomes abundantly clear that it’s Kate who doesn’t know how to deal with life after her illness. In an emotional moment between her and Tom, she opens up about her pain, about the confusion getting better threw her into.
It seems counterintuitive but this fear of being better, a fear of not knowing who you are without your illness is extremely real. Having struggled with mental illnesses that manifested physical illnesses, when I got better I didn’t know how to define my life. I didn’t know how to define who I was. But more importantly, I didn’t know who I was without it. My anxiety and depression hurt my body and when my body bounced back and I staved off relapses of my eating disorder, everything changed. My relationship with food, my relationship with my body, my entire sense of self.
When Kate got better, she was finally alone. She had to rely on herself, or at least he thought that that was what she was supposed to do. This explanation for her pain, and Clarke’s ability to act through it, consistently letting the audience know that there is more under the surface of her bad decisions is phenomenal. But Last Christmas is a rom-com, not just an exploration of identity, although it is that as well, and boy does it bring the comedy.
While Clarke and Golding are the film’s focus, Santa and Kate’s mother Petra (Thompson) are the comedic center of the film. While Golding has charmingly funny moments, he’s the film’s leading man. And while Kate’s messy life offers up some laughs, the levity isn’t the focus of her story. Instead, Yeoh and Thompson are the funniest people on screen, weaving in their honesty in not only a comedic but an authentic way. When on-screen, the jokes they make that call out parts of their reality caused the entire screening to erupt in laughter. There were multiple times I had to hold my mouth to stop from laughing too long.
Yeoh and Thompson’s comedic timing and delivery is something that I need more of, but it’s their humor, from the dialogue that Thompson co-wrote that taps into reality in a way that makes you laugh. When Petra explains her experience with the KGB and her loneliness in London, or when Santa explains how she changes her name based on where she works because she doesn’t trust the English to get her name right, it all works for reasons beyond wordplay.
But at the end of the day, Last Christmas is, of course, a Christmas movie. That being said, the Christmas elements in the film exist to accent the story instead of necessitating it. From the Yuletide shop where Kate works, to the snow on the street, and the ending’s Christmas concert, the true spirit of Christmas that runs through the film is the late George Michael’s music. Based on the Wham! song of the same name, the film takes the lyrics to produce a meaning that not only embodies the holiday classic but never feels forced. Additionally, Michael’s music is the life-blood of the film as a whole, running through scenes and showcasing the emotion of the characters.
While the film follows the beats of many romantic comedies, that isn’t a bad thing. From the beginning to the ending, Last Christmas reminds us why we love rom coms. Even in its predictable moments, the film is beautiful. Outside of Love Actually, there hasn’t been a Christmas or holiday film that earns an annual rewatch from me. That said, I’m happy to say that Last Christmas will be. The film offers up more than mistletoe, brings out belly laughs, and gives audiences a charismatic and loving pair in Kate and Tom that is set to become a Christmas classic in many homes.
Last Christmas is in theaters nationwide on November 8, 2019.
While the film follows the beats of many romantic comedies, that isn’t a bad thing. From the beginning to the ending, Last Christmas reminds us why we love rom coms. Even in its predictable moments, the film is beautiful…The film offers up more than mistletoe, brings out belly laughs, and gives audiences a charismatic and loving pair in Kate and Tom that is set to become a Christmas classic in many homes.
Kate Sánchez is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of But Why Tho? A Geek Community. There, she coordinates film, television, anime, and manga coverage. Kate is also a freelance journalist writing features on video games, anime, and film. Her focus as a critic is championing animation and international films and television series for inclusion in awards cycles.