Kate (Emilia Clarke) is in a rut. Long ago, as a girl growing up in Yugoslavia circa 1999, she was a songbird who could turn George Michael’s “Heal the Pain” into a transcendental choral experience. Decades later, she’s a young woman who drinks away her pain in London’s pubs and manages to alienate her most loyal friends. Don’t get her started about her family: Dad (Boris Isakovic) was a former lawyer who now drives a cab; Mom (co-writer Emma Thompson) browbeats everyone; her sister (Lydia Leonard) isn’t speaking to her. Occasionally, she auditions for roles in musical theater productions like an ice-skating version of Frozen. Mostly, Kate half-heartedly works at a year-round Christmas decorations store. She is a lovable, quirky fuck-up, U.K. Toxic-Twee division.
But soft, what light through yonder retail shop’s window breaks? His name is Tom (Crazy Rich Asians’ Henry Golding). He’s so very handsome but also so very annoying, Kate thinks, what with his constant bike-riding and unimpeachable optimism and endless requests that she “look up.” Because that’s how you see the wonders of the everyday world that are above you and all around you, if only you took the time to notice them! Kate mocks his sunny disposition. Tom forces her to be nicer to people, and to herself. Except the manic J. Crew dream hunk has a habit of taking off at inopportune moments — the guy “works nights,” you see — or disappearing altogether, and then mysteriously reappearing when our heroine is at her lowest. But in the meantime, she starts volunteering at the local homeless shelter, and acts as a matchmaker for her boss (Michelle Yeoh) and a distinguished Dutch customer (Peter Mygind) who the older woman likes and calls “Boy,” which … just … never mind.
Even if you haven’t paid attention to the slight internet chatter around Last Christmas, you can sense some sort of big reveal is looming on the horizon. In fact, you can probably identify exactly what said climactic curveball is if you’re paying a smidgen of attention, especially when talk of some vague past illness Kate has suffered begins to surface. When your worst fears are confirmed — and then doubled down on — it doesn’t cause your heart to go pitter-patter so much as make your blood boil with rage. The are-you-serious turn that the film treats as deep is admittedly on-brand, however. This is the kind of movie that also mistakes obvious and cloying for clever, ham-fisted for subtle, and merely stringing together George Michael tunes as some sort of homage.
Right, the Michael factor: The title takes its name from Wham’s melancholy 1986 ditty, which took on a new level of poignancy when the singer passed away on December 25th, 2016. (Remember this date.) After Thompson was approached with an offer to pen a script based on the song, the British screen icon, her collaborator/husband Greg Wise and her cowriter Bryony Kimmings instead conceived a Christmas movie that borrowed heavily from his music. And while the end result never goes full Mamma Mia with the idea, it does mean that, for example, a scene of Kate waking up will be accompanied by a video of Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go.” When she sings a lullaby to heal her pain, it turns into “Heal the Pain” on the soundtrack. A montage of the couple experiencing a rush of blissful freedom is set to the strains of “Freedom ’90.” The fact that Kate’s increasingly smitten glances at this enigmatic beau do not cue up “I Want Your Sex” feels like a missed opportunity, but if you’re like us, you will feel a nostalgic pang upon hearing Michael’s songs again. Cherish that feeling of good will. It is in very short supply here.
Which brings us to the genuine spoiler here: Last Christmas is bad. Incredibly, shockingly, monumentally bad. The kind of bad that falls somewhere between finding a lump of coal in your stocking and discovering one painfully lodged in your rectum. The kind of bad that you get when you bring together people of enormous talent and then are forced to watch them flail around, lost and flop-sweat desperate, attempting to make a romantic comedy that is mind-bogglingly short of both elements. The kind of bad where you might literally hear the tolerance messaging — same-sex unions, homelessness, anti-immigrant prejudice, Brexit — being ticked off a checklist were it not drowned out by the sound of everyone patting themselves on the back. The kind of bad that you get when you aim for that Richard Curtis sweet-spot à la Love Actually and actually land, face-first, into a pile of garbage just like your lead character. Yes, Clarke’s Kate is a mess. She can’t begin to compete with the movie she is in. You pray for a trio of dragons to swoop from the sky and burn the whole thing to the ground, incinerating prints of the film as an added bonus. (We’re kidding, of course. Films are no longer shown in multiplexes via prints.)
How this managed to devolve into such a tainted-tinsel disaster is, frankly, a more intriguing mystery than the one at the center of the story. Clarke has all the makings of a screwball comedian. Golding has screen presence and charisma to burn. On paper, the notion of Thompson telling dick jokes in a thick Eastern European accent sounds hilarious; we’re also talking about the woman who wrote the screenplay for Sense and Sensibility, the gold standard for how to do modern lit-classic adaptations correctly. Paul Feig directed Bridesmaids, Spy and numerous key episodes of NBC’s The Office. Even if you don’t dig the tune that gives the movie its name, George Michael’s back catalogue is emotionally resonant and eminently ripe for the full-soundtrack treatment. Who couldn’t use a story doused in the milk of human kindness?
Individually, the ingredients seem foolproof. Add it all together, paced like a slowly leaking faucet and cut together in a way that makes you wonder whether the editors were being chased by the police, and what you get is a flavorless mishmash. It makes sense that Last Christmas isn’t coming out at the end of December but right on the cusp of Thanksgiving. It’s a bona fide holiday-movie turkey.