Any of you who have been reading my reviews for a while may know I have a slight penchant for liking small, independent films and that extends to a subgenre commonly referred to as mumblecore. While my cool factor may be wearing thin as I’m not even sure people are using that term much anymore, it’s basically a film that’s made in a short amount of time, largely done via handheld camerawork with a lot of grain, with perhaps a fleshed out idea of where the characters will be headed but with plenty of room left for the actors to discover how they’re going to get from point to point and the ability to create the dialogue to suit their instincts.
Writer/director Joe Swanberg is one of the more well known filmmakers in this arena, with 2007’s Hannah Take the Stairs almost being his calling card of sorts. However, last year he earned a much-deserved amount of praise for taking the mumblecore genre to an almost mainstream level with Drinking Buddies. It still had all the wonderful and intimate hallmarks of the mumblecore genre but sported the likes of Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick in two of their finest performances to date. It’s an underrated film and made my top 10 of the year. Go watch it if you haven’t. Seriously.
Now he’s back much closer to his roots with Happy Christmas. I say that because the film feels more like an underground speakeasy kind of joint. Although he’s reunited with Kendrick, and co-stars in the movie, Swanberg’s newest venture is decidedly built for an audience who eschew the more traditional plot structure. This is a slice of life kind of deal. Swanberg and his wife (played by the always wonderful Melanie Lynskey who got to keep her native New Zealand accent for once) take in his sister (Kendrick) who’s coming off a bad breakup and looking to reinvigorate her life. Tension arises as Kendrick’s immaturity and aimlessness clash with their “adult” life of raising a child and being responsible.
What follows are a series of starts and stops to everyone’s sense of self-perspective. Now, as much as I’ve waxed poetic about things so far, this is where the movie derailed for me. I’m all for watching emotionally fragile people screw up and self-destruct but due to the way things are set up here, and to how they resolve, I found myself disconnected from the characters. Normally, I’d identify with a character like Kendrick’s, as she masks her emotional turmoil with drink, drugs, and sex. Here, she comes off petulant, almost spiteful, and practically unlikable … and for anyone who knows me, saying that about a character played by Anna Kendrick actually causes me some pain.
Swanberg’s character initially seems to be relevant to the story but quickly fades into the background and ends up less than fully fleshed out, with really only one scene where he gets high with his sister as a standout moment. Actually, as the movie progresses, it turns into a girl-power seminar as Lynskey, Kendrick, and Lena Dunham collaborate on the beginnings of a generic, cliché romance novel. The dynamic and conversations between the three feel genuine and I can appreciate what’s happening but if it weren’t for their natural screen presence, most people not accustomed to this type of story telling would wonder what the point of everything is.
And therein lies the downfall of Happy Christmas for me. Normally, films like this provide some element of a journey for the characters. I’m not all that sure anyone in the movie has really learned anything by the time the credits roll. One could easily counter that may be the point and there’s validity in that notion. However, without seeming to accomplish anything other than being a fly on the wall for these people’s lives for a few simulated weeks, I left the movie feeling hollow and largely dissatisfied in my choice to sit through it all. Perhaps I was too spoiled by the richness of the character development from Drinking Buddies. Maybe the flat trajectory of the plot and characters says something profound. I’m certainly not going to knock anyone for being able to relate here; it just didn’t happen for me.
If you’re a longtime fan of Swanberg’s work, or of this type of filmmaking, by all means give Happy Christmas a watch. Anyone who needs a bit more structure to things and wants characters to have more recognizable and meaningful arcs should probably steer clear though.
Happy Christmas is rated R for language, drug use and some sexual content.
– Reviewed by Ian Forbes
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