Last Christmas – the new holiday rom-com from director Paul Feig and co-writer/co-star Emma Thompson – is the type of movie where a character says to a potential romantic partner “I didn’t work so hard to get my new heart only to turn around and give it to someone who doesn’t want it” and the audience is expected to cry. Damn you, Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding! Just kiss and be happy and grow old together already. Rom-com the hell out of this thing.
(For the quote to make sense you have to know Clarke’s character has recently undergone a heart transplant. Also, to be clear, the scene in question totally worked for me because I have a soft spot for movies like this.)
Except Last Christmas isn’t any old rom-com. No, it’s a 2019 rom-com which means there either has to be a genre deconstruction of some sort, a high concept conceit, or a crazy third act twist. Last Christmas goes two for three in that department:
The George Michael Of It All
There are actually several high concepts at play here, but let’s stick with the obvious: the story is scored to the songs of George Michael because Clarke’s character, Kate, a 26-year-old fuck-up with failed musical ambitions, describes herself as a packaged deal – to love her is to love George Michael, no matter what. This level of pop-culture cross-pollination never quite rises to the level Yesterday (a rom-com set in a world in which The Beatles never happened) or Blinded By the Light (a coming of age dramedy about a young UK immigrant’s obsession with Bruce Springsteen). That is to say, George Michael doesn’t occupy nearly as much retail in the story as those other musicians do in their movies. Beyond the aforementioned line from Kate, Michael is almost never even named on-screen.
Instead, Last Christmas is more like one of those stunts American TV shows do sometimes where an entire episode features songs by a single artist or band and may or may not also feature a storyline written to reflect the themes in the songs. Ever seen a CBS crime procedural scored to the songs of Pearl Jam? Well, I have, and it was…weird. Like, what-the-hell-were-they-thinking weird.
Luckily, Last Christmas is actually quite clever with its needle drops. “Faith” and “Freedom,” for example, are respectively re-contextualized as an ode to helping others (Kate somewhat accidentally ends up volunteering at a homeless shelter) and a powerful rebuke of the “othering” going on in the UK – and other parts of the world – right now. (Brexit is directly referenced, and Kate’s Yugoslavian parents, particularly her mother played by Emma Thompson, take the immigrant scapegoating quite hard.) Other songs, like the titular “Last Christmas,” factor in significantly, but in a slightly different way.
The people sitting next to me in the theater seemed to love it. They sang along with every one of the songs! (Sidebar: Not cool, right?) However, my companion at the film doesn’t know her George Michael from her Boy George, and she still enjoyed the film.
Point: George Michael is a value-added proposition here. The film is ultimately a tribute to George Michael, but you don’t have to know that or get the references to go along with the story.
We Have to Talk About That Twist
The George Michael of it all isn’t even the thing people have been talking about with this movie, though. No, it’s the crazy third act twist. From literally the second the first Last Christmas trailer dropped, the internet smelled a rat. The film was actually trending on Twitter at one point due to the number of fans who were flooding social media with their theories for what actually happens at the end.
The movie promised by the trailer: a bubbly party girl with an ill-defined past medical tragedy falls for a mysterious, handsome stranger who no one ever actually seems to talk to or interact with.
The twist the internet guessed: she’s dead, he’s an angel. Or she’s alive and he’s a ghost? Or they’re both dead? Whatever the exact twist, it’s beyond obvious that Henry Golding’s character, Tom, isn’t who Kate believes him to be. The theorizing got so heavy Paul Feige felt the need to speak out, saying the internet’s theories were wrong. Methinks he doth protest too much?
I will simply confirm there is a twist. Yes, it is insanely obvious something isn’t right with Tom – a night deliveryman who never seems to deliver anything, a volunteer at the local homeless shelter even though no one there recognizes his name when asked by Kate, has a knack for appearing out of nowhere and then disappearing for days on end without explanation, oddly dances around people on sidewalks rather than brush past them. Part of the fun – or great distraction – with Last Christmas is waiting to see when exactly the big reveal about Tom finally happens and what shape it will take. Once you get there, though, it’s fairly disappointing. It’s an exclamation point this particular sentence didn’t need.
Forget All of That and Just Enjoy Emilia Clarke Finally Freed to Be Herself on Screen
Emilia Clarke’s career outside – and even sometimes inside – of Game of Thrones has been one of the more fascinating cases of an actress running away from her natural strengths. Watch even a single interview with her and you’ll see that she has an overflowing amount of Jennifer Lawrence-style charisma, perpetually given to off-the-cuff comments, witty jokes, and insanely meme-able laughs and facial expressions.
Plus, she has a tendency to curse like a sailor.
This has almost never come across in her performances. She’s Daenerys Targaryen! She’s a big, important action star who can rock medieval costumes. Quick, put her in a Terminator movie as the new Sarah Connor (Terminator: Genisys)! That was a disaster? Shit, well, put her in a Star Wars movie as the love of Han Solo’s life right before he met Leia (Solo)! That bombed too? Damn. Um, I don’t know. She’s a great cinematic cryer. Give her a weepy rom-com (Me Before You). What about a horror movie (Voice from the Stone)? Or a prestige historical thriller (Above Suspicion)?
It’s not that every one of those films is a regrettable time-waster or that she should be embarrassed for her performances in them. I actually quite like her stab at a femme fatale figure in Solo. However, movie stardom – at least traditional American movie stardom – is built on actors playing different variations on their own personality or at least their public persona. She’s been trying to do that, but this has taken the form of chasing variations on The Mother of Dragons, The Unburnt, The Breaker of Chains, etc. The Emilia Clarke, however, who is every talk show’s favorite guest and every film journalist’s prized interview subject hasn’t quite made it to the screen.
Last Christmas finally taps into her deep potential for comedy, and she doesn’t waste her shot. Yes, the rom-com half of the film does force her to explore some deeper emotions and heavier subjects, but that really is only half of the film. Since Tom disappears and reappears with no rhyme or reason, Henry Golding is but a fleeting on-screen player in Last Christmas. The rest of the story is about Kate’s rocky road toward self-improvement, not dissimilar in that way to Brittany Runs a Marathon.
That means this is Emilia Clarke’s movie to carry. Whether she’s firing off rat-a-tat-tat jokes with her boss played (to perfection!) by Michelle Yeoh, bouncing off of her disapproving, ultra-successful sister (Lydia Leonard), or rolling her eyes in embarrassment in the presence of her overbearing mother, Clarke’s version of Kate is a character you can’t stop watching. You’re never sure what she’ll do or say next, and even as the story takes some turns into cheesy, sub-Love Actually territory it’s so easy to just go along with it because she’s such a fun character to be around.
To this point, Emilia Clarke has been known for playing a chosen one figure, a woman so special she could literally walk out of fire unscathed. Kate in Last Christmas is similarly given to such a belief that she’s somehow special, that all the praise she received as a little girl for her singing must mean she’s entitled to a career as a singer in adulthood. The story of the film is less about a crazy twist or nascent romance with the hot guy from Crazy Rich Asians. It’s about learning to accept that the best way to be special is to simply help others and leave the world behind you a better place. If that means putting on a fundraising concert at the local homeless shelter then just go for it with everything you have. But, if you do that, ya know, please sing some George Michael.
It’s exactly the kind of cheesy holiday cheer we need for our dark times.
Random Parting Thoughts
- Yes, that is actually Emilia Clarke singing in the movie.
- No, there aren’t any post-credits scenes.
- No, Henry Golding and Michelle Yeoh do not share the screen at any point in the movie. I know, I know – they had the son and mom from Crazy Rich Asians in a movie together again, and they never put them in a scene together? WTF! However, I imagine Golding is here more because of his working relationship with Paul Feig after A Simple Favor, and Yeoh…honestly, you don’t need a reason to put her in anything. She’s Michelle freakin’ Yeoh. Of course she knocks it out of the park.
What say you? Are you still stuck up on the twist? Emma Thompson’s Yugoslavian accent? Or how little I talked about Henry Golding in this review? (Sorry, he really doesn’t have much to do here. It’s not his movie; it’s her’s. But, hey, you do see him shirtless for a brief moment.) Let me know in the comments.