Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Movie Review: Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas
Directed by: Joe Swanberg.
Written by: Joe Swanberg.
Starring: Anna Kendrick (Jenny), Melanie Lynskey (Kelly), Mark Webber (Kevin), Lena Dunham (Carson), Joe Swanberg (Jeff).

The films of Joe Swanberg all seem to be of a piece –he rejects anything resembling a plot or resolution, and seems to want nothing more than to hang out with his characters for extended, seemingly improvised scenes. Some of his films have been insufferable – the acting terrible, the style, which is basically a complete lack of style, annoying and the whole project seeming like little more than navel gazing. His last two (or at least the last two I’ve seen – he is a strangely prolific director) have shown a little more promise, a little more intelligence – or at the very least acknowledges that his hipster characters can be completely and totally insufferable. Like Drinking Buddies, last year’s film in which best friends Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde do not know they are perfect for each other, Happy Christmas is a movie that takes a more seemingly mainstream genre and gives it a Swanberg-twist. In this case, it’s the coming home comedy-drama – where Jenny (Anna Kendrick), comes to live with her brother Jeff (Swanberg himself) and his wife, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) – who are new parents. Jenny, younger, more free spirited, most also more irresponsible, turns their life’s upside down – and they everyone grows a little bit. This probably sounds like a horrible, family Christmas comedy – and yes, in different hands, that is perhaps what it would be. But Swanberg twists it enough to make it an interesting sit – not a particularly good one, but an interesting one.

At first, Jenny seems to be a completely normal, young 20-something, and her brother and his wife seem like a perfect happy, 30-something couple with kids. But early in the film, Jenny goes to party with her friend, Carson (Lena Dunham), and gets so drunk she passes out in the closet – prompting Carson to have to call Jeff to come pick Jenny up. It isn’t the last time Jenny will get black out drunk in the film –though oddly (and somewhat refreshingly), no one ever uses the word alcoholic – although that is clearly what Jenny is. She also smokes a lot of pot – and when she meets Kevin (Mark Webber), a friend and of Jeff and Kelly, and their son’s part-time babysitter (and part-time pot dealer) – the pair do a slow dance of seduction – with Jenny being the more aggressive of the two (also, somewhat refreshing). Meanwhile, even though Kelly initially doesn’t think much of Jenny, she eventually gets inspired by her – Kelly, who is a novelist, needs a good kick in the pants to get going again after the birth of her son – and Jenny gives her that. And also an idea – why not just churn out one of those “mommy sex” books, and make a boatload of money.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Swanberg's more recent films and his earlier work is the quality of the acting. He was one of the first to recognize the brilliance of Greta Gerwig – but Gerwig often outshined everyone else in the movies. Now, with a slightly higher profile, he can hire better actors. Kendrick, so naturally sweet and likable, is well cast as Jenny – who loses and regains our sympathy more than once during the course of the movie. Lynskey is also very good as the put upon mother, who simply wants a little bit of freedom for herself. The best scenes in the movie are between these two – or these two alongside Dunham’s Carson, just spitballing ideas for the novel, or shooting the shit – with the two younger women completely unaware of how ridiculous they sound (ah – the arrogance of youth). I did appreciate the fact that Swanberg doesn’t make Jeff into some sort of selfish asshole – unlike many movie dads and husbands, he actually wants to spend time with his son, doesn’t complain about it, and also does what he can to give Kelly time to herself. Yes, that’s normal husband behavior (or should be) – but in this sort of movie (basically a big screen sitcom), that practically qualifies Jeff for sainthood.
I liked some of the ideas behind Happy Christmas – and liked how Swanberg refused to give into easy clichés. He takes a well-worn genre, and twists it a little. The problem is that by itself, that just isn’t enough. The complete lack of structure in the film is charming for a while, but slowly wears out its welcome (and this is only an 82 minute film). Swanberg has found a slightly different way to tell the same stories Hollywood always does, but minus the clichés. The problem is, while he doesn’t do the same things in the story that Hollywood would be – his substitute is just as inane and boring. Swanberg already has 26 directing credits in just over a decade (I told you, he was strangely prolific) – and I think he’s finally showing real signs of there being an interesting filmmaker in there, somewhere. He hasn’t quite showed himself yet – but he’s getting closer.

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