Last year, director Paul Feig took what looked like a Lifetime-style housewife-in-peril thriller in A Simple Favor and put a clever, self-aware twist on a familiar kind of story. With Last Christmas, Feig takes on another much-maligned, TV-friendly genre, the holiday romantic comedy, but he plays this one disappointingly straight, delivering a generic but sometimes charming holiday tale about a cynical Christmas-store employee learning to embrace the spirit of the season. There’s a big plot twist toward the end of the movie, but it’s neither subversive nor particularly surprising, and it undermines a lot of the sweet emotional moments that precede it.
Kate (Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke) spends her days working in a garish Christmas store owned by woman who is literally known as Santa (Michelle Yeoh), and her nights crashing on various friends’ couches and strangers’ beds, while she avoids going home to her family, particularly her disapproving Croatian mother (Emma Thompson, who also co-wrote the screenplay). One day she meets Tom (Crazy Rich Asians’ Henry Golding) outside the store, and she’s immediately smitten by this kind, patient and extremely handsome man, who opens her heart to the joys of helping others and stopping to appreciate the little things in life.
Kate is recovering from an unspecified serious illness, and her misanthropic attitude extends to herself, fueling self-destructive habits that Tom gently steers her away from. He’s such a beatific presence that it’s hard not to be suspicious of him, and his evasive answers about his private life only add to that mistrust. Tom is less a character than the human equivalent of an emotional support animal, providing Kate with just the right encouragement exactly when she needs it. As he did in Crazy Rich Asians, Golding successfully embodies a noble, empathetic guy with a gorgeous smile and not much of an interior life, and while he and Clarke have solid chemistry, the movie is really about Kate and her emotional journey, not about the largely chaste romance.
Clarke has struggled a bit to find the right role after playing Daenerys Targaryen for eight seasons, and with Last Christmas she proves that she can be exuberant and light and funny. Kate is nothing like the Mother of Dragons, and Clarke is strong enough in the role that it’s disappointing that she and Golding are playing out such rote, predictable beats, right up to the heavily telegraphed twist. Subplots about Kate’s immigrant family (letting Thompson indulge in an entertaining Eastern European accent) and Santa’s inexplicable romance with a Danish businessman don’t add much to the story, either comedically or thematically, and Feig directs it all with a slick, generic sitcom style, in contrast to the visual creativity he displayed in A Simple Favor.
Kate is presented as a massive George Michael fan, and the soundtrack is full of Michael’s songs, although it’s not really clear how they’re meant to connect to the plot, aside from a broad interpretation of the title song (the 1984 holiday staple by Michael’s group Wham!). Last Christmas often feels like a frustrated musical, and its simplistic emotions might come across more effectively if the characters were allowed to occasionally burst into song.
As an aspiring stage performer, Kate does at least get to sing when the plot calls for it, and Clarke shows off a pretty singing voice to add to the talents that she might tap into, post-Thrones. Feig gives her plenty of chances to shine, but this isn’t the kind of revelatory performance that he got out of Blake Lively in A Simple Favor or Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids. It’s pleasant, cozy and easy to watch, much like the entirely forgettable movie surrounding it.