Today’s box office landscape has largely left no room for the romantic comedy; the once-abundant genre has largely been banished from widespread theatrical release and relegated to the background noise of Netflix and Hallmark Channel originals. Aiming to shake up this status quo is director Paul Feig’s “Last Christmas,” a middling attempt at holiday charm that, despite a capable lead and a fair amount of droll comedic sequences, sinks under the weight of contrived schmaltz.
The film follows Kate (Emilia Clarke), an aspiring singer and certified hot mess who works as an elf in a tacky Christmas shop that is run by a stern boss (Michelle Yeoh). Kate’s life is in shambles — she’s grown distant from her mother Petra (Emma Thompson) and her sister Marta (Lydia Leonard) after a life-threatening illness forced Kate into heart transplant surgery a year prior, and she has to co-opt friends’ couches in the absence of a permanent home, drinking and one-night-standing her pain away. It isn’t long before Kate’s existence is interrupted by her dashingly handsome knight in shining trench coat Tom (Henry Golding), who quickly dedicates himself to teaching Kate how to make the most of her second chance at life.
Tying together this sentimental yarn is Clarke, whose sardonic turn as Kate is the film’s most worthwhile element. Clarke is a worthy rom-com heroine, sharply delivering her witty retorts and building an emotionally investing rapport with a serviceable cast of supporting characters. Clarke’s interplay with Thompson — whose batty Petra is proof that the actress still knows how to steal a scene — is the sweetest thing “Last Christmas” has to offer. Clarke does her level-best to sell Kate’s emotional journey, which considering the fact that her journey mostly plays out in the form of multiple slow-motion montages set to George Michael’s greatest hits, should be taken as a hearty endorsement of her ability.
Regrettably, the film’s charm begins and ends with its lead. Though “Last Christmas” is marketed as a romantic comedy, there’s little romance to be found; it’s difficult to buy into Kate and Tom’s chemistry when Golding’s character reads more as a walking, talking self-help manual than an actual human being. Golding, who was the consummate leading man in 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” appears vastly more one-dimensional here, giving a stiff performance composed of greeting card-worthy aphorisms and canned wistful gazes.
Additionally, Clarke’s short scenes with Leonard hint at an interesting family dynamic that’s never fully fleshed out, while Yeoh’s role is reduced to half-baked insults and recycled comedic bits. It’s perhaps par for the course that a rom-com’s supporting cast should be composed of stock characters, but it’s especially disappointing in this case when considering the talent available.
The rest of the film’s meandering script, penned by Thompson and Bryony Kimmings and seemingly directed on autopilot by a usually skillful Feig, quickly becomes mired in corny cliches and glossy, surface-level sentiment, creating more of an assemblage of tropes than a story. Needle drops, montages and dewy-eyed gazes abound. The film’s brief ventures into realism are immediately tempered by this forced soppiness. At best, this tendency merits a mere eye roll; at worst, the film’s laughably oversimplified politics — including lazy gestures at British anti-immigrant sentiment and a sequence involving homeless shelter residents, who are portrayed as hapless beneficiaries cheerily auditioning for a musical — are frustratingly reductive. While Kate’s central arc has moments of sincerity, they’re often rushed and drowned out by the film’s overreliance on platitude.
But for most audiences, “Last Christmas” will be defined by the plot twist in its third act, which is clumsily telegraphed throughout the film and, to put it simply, profoundly stupid. It’s a narrative choice that is befitting of the rest of the film: corny, overly familiar and aggressively sweet.
As far as holiday cheer goes, “Last Christmas” has just enough to be an enjoyable, if immediately forgettable, diversion. If only it had leaned more into the acerbic appeal of Clarke’s performance or made the effort to scaffold a believable central relationship, “Last Christmas” might have had a shot at some meaningful originality. As it is, the film is simply a trite rehash, recalling the stale charm of listening to the same Wham! song on the radio played one too many times over.