'Last Christmas' is a holiday heartwarmer

Courtesy PhotoEmilia Clarke and Henry Golding star in 'Last Christmas.'

Christmas romantic comedies are a cottage industry all their own, so much so that Hallmark and Netflix are now expected to churn out multiple new incarnations of the subgenre every year. For some fans of the season, they’re a staple not just because of their stories, but because they’re a nice thing to have on in the background while you bake cookies and wrap presents. Because of that, and the generally over-commercialized nature of the Christmas season in general, it’s tempting to see them as interchangeable and forgettable. 

The holiday romcoms that stick around beyond their seasonal use as staples of basic cable and streaming service lineups are the ones that offer a little something extra amid all the twinkling lights and artificial snow. It’s hard to quantify, but it’s there in all the ones fans can’t live without during the holiday season, from “White Christmas” to “The Holiday.” There’s something warm, fuzzy, and just a little more sparkly in these films, and the latest entry in the subgenre, “Last Christmas,” has it too.

Written by Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings and inspired by the Wham! song it shares a title with, “Last Christmas” merges two of the most tried-and-true tropes holiday films have to offer: The person who can’t find any joy in life as Christmas approaches and the person whose life is changed by the arrival of a mysterious stranger. In this case, the former is Kate (Emilia Clarke), a young woman with dreams of being a singer whose life was thrown off course by a life-threatening illness. Kate’s recovered from that illness, but there’s no spark to her life anymore. She labors apathetically in a Christmas shop every day, goes out drinking every night, and struggles to find a place to live where she won’t alienate her roommates.

Then she meets Tom (Henry Golding), a bike messenger who she notices wandering around outside her shop one day and who just happens to ask her out. Tom seems like the only source of stability and joy in Kate’s life between bungled auditions, her grumpy boss (Michelle Yeoh), and her overbearing mother (Thompson, clearly having a blast). As their relationship grows more complicated and Christmas approaches, though, Kate will have to make a choice about the kind of life she wants to have.

As far as Christmas movies go, none of this is particularly groundbreaking, because the subgenre’s greatest moments often come from taking a joyless person and infusing them with a little cheer. Charles Dickens, who invented the Christmas story as we know it, gave us the ultimate version of that with Ebenezer Scrooge, after all. As with so many films of this kind, though, the trick is not in somehow breaking apart the conventions of the subgenre, but in amplifying and enhancing them. For that, the production turned to director Paul Feig, who’s delivered some of the best comedy films of the past 20 years in “Bridesmaids” and “Spy.”

Feig has a knack for making the kind of films that deliver the goods of their respective subgenres while also never being afraid to get just a little weird, and he brings that same sensibility to “Last Christmas.” The film is beautifully Christmas-y, from the shop where Kate works to the decorations adorning the rather intimate version of London presented in the story, and Feig knows exactly how we as an audience would like to see it all shot and lit. it delivers the Christmas goods in that warm, slightly bittersweet we’ve come to expect from this subgenre, but then Feig goes further. There’s an element of comedic weirdness infusing his film, from the little in-between moments in which the characters are simply moving through scenes to the supporting cast and their often slightly odd interactions with the leads. It’s all enough to give the film the kind of handmade charm of a lovingly painted ornament on a Christmas tree.

Speaking of charm, the cast also brings bucketloads of it, and it of course all centers on the two leads. Golding, fresh off his breakout success in “Crazy Rich Asians,” is effortlessly nimble and fun and a joy to watch. Clarke, fresh off her career-making role in “Game of Thrones,” proves herself an adept comedienne who also remains a brilliantly expressive dramatic actress, and she’s found a film that allows her to do both. Their chemistry together is easy, compelling, and ultimately heartwarming, proving that sometimes the shortest route to a great romcom is just cooking with the right ingredients.

“Last Christmas” has flaws, of course. It’s a film that seems a little too pleased with its own cleverness in places, and its insistence that all things must flow back into holiday cheer at all times could prove tiresome to the wrong audience. If you’re a diehard Christmas movie fanatic, though, it should be exactly what you’re looking for. It was for me.

‘Last Christmas’ is in theaters November 8.

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