With the boom of holiday-themed movies on channels like Hallmark and Lifetime, seasonal movies released in theaters have gone way down in recent years. Last Christmas, directed by Paul Feig and co-written by Emma Thompson, looks to fill that void with a lot of help from the music of George Michael.
Kate (Emilia Clarke) is a flighty twentysomething who, following a health scare, is trying to find her way in the world. She works for a woman who calls herself Santa (Michelle Yeoh) at a year-round Christmas store, goes on disastrous music auditions, avoids calls from her overbearing mother (Thompson), and wears out her welcome with even her most loyal friends.
Her outlook on life starts to change when she meets Tom (Henry Golding), a mysterious stranger who volunteers at a local homeless shelter. Enamored with his optimism, Kate soon starts falling for him, following him to hidden spots around London. But will her new attitude be a lasting one, or will she fall back into her old ways?
Even though the movie is called Last Christmas and features a Christmas store as one of its main settings, this is a Christmas movie that’s not really about Christmas. It features some carols and multiple versions of Michael’s “Last Christmas,” but the jolliness is often muted by the more serious aspects of the sweet if predictable story. On the plus side, the matter-of-fact diversity in the film is great to see, especially when it comes paired with a light-but-pointed Brexit critique.
The film is also hit-and-miss with its use of George Michael songs. Kate proclaims herself to be a Michael superfan and proves those bona fides by returning to the lesser-known “Heal the Pain” multiple times. But odd uses of “Faith” and “Father Figure,” as well as a super-obvious insertion of “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go,” undercut the scenes to which they’re attached. It’s always great to hear songs like “Freedom ‘90” — thankfully, they skipped “I Want Your Sex” — but you can’t help feeling like the songs as a whole could have been better integrated into the story.
Alas, the film also falls into the Christmas movie trap of showing a transformation that doesn’t feel earned. Kate is shown to be careless and selfish for much of the film, and her interactions with Tom never feel like they’re enough for her to actually start caring about others. It certainly feels good for us to see her become a better person, but the end result is less of a filling meal and more like empty calories.
After spending years as the Mother of Dragons, it’s nice to see Clarke in a low-key role. Even though her character’s arc is not that believable, she plays the part well, drawing us in with a bright face and bubbly demeanor. Golding, however, is a cypher in the film, making almost no impact. More interesting are Yeoh and Thompson, who use their years of experience to make their small amount of screen time meaningful.
Last Christmas is like most holiday movies — something that makes you feel good in the moment, but destined to be forgotten before the year is done. Even the hook of a George Michael soundtrack can’t make it last.