Melbourne 2014 Review: HAPPY CHRISTMAS Boosted By Its Characters
The free-formed plot involves a couple with a child; Jeff (Swanberg) and author Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and the slight stress they endure when Jeff's seemingly irresponsible sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick) comes to live with them in Chicago after an apparently painful break-up. The film goes to no great lengths to show the ripples she creates and the very minute changes that take place. Regardless of the small nature of the film and its inherent anti-drama, the two female protagonists Kelly and Jenny mostly play very strongly off each-other and the gender slant the film has works well to explore modern relationships and family arrangements.
The film is shot in 16mm stock and is mostly improvised. This is supposed to enhance the authenticity of the situation, but in fact serves little purpose. The tight interiors of the couple's house and the strange Tiki-bar basement where Jenny resides that seems to stretch on forever are clever set pieces that seem to be at war with each other. One place, a no-go zone for a couple with child, another a mature nest that Jenny feels excluded from despite the efforts of all involved.
Likewise the cinematography plays it close, to an almost claustrophobic level, both outside and in the other few locations Jenny and Kelly find themselves in. It seems that they are both trapped or confined in one way or another.
Jenny, although reckless is fragile and does not allow for much intimacy in her brief encounters, and Kelly keeps herself occupied by the rote role of household mum, although she yearns for more. Jeff gives little away as the husband, but there are seething intentions beneath the surface he sometimes reveals through a throwaway line or half-joke. The characterization and subtleties work well with the marvelous cinematography, as the proximity to each family member provides a wealth of undisclosed information about them as the film jumps into a point in their life just a few days before Christmas.
The improvisation is mostly a defunct point; Kendrick and Lynskey sometimes come off flat even though they are talented enough to make most material work. Lena Dunham proves more affable and willing, adjusting her sharp and witty lines to each set-piece well. She knows her place as the friend of Jenny but in one of the best scenes has a tremendous free-flowing conversation with flustered mum Kelly, hinting at flirting with the possibility of another life altogether.
Jude Swanberg is the baby and the glue of the film. Every scene he is in is brought to life thanks to his energy and the effect it has on the characters around him, creating most of the comedy.
Despite the characters and cinematography, the film falls flat with its plot, which is incredibly under-cooked despite the literally over-cooked Christmas Eve 'drama'. Jenny sleepwalks through her life and yet encourages the tired Kelly to write again, culminating in a painful section of the film involving joke misfires and tired observations about erotic novels.
Additionally, a relationship sub-plot with Jenny, if it can be called that, goes nowhere fast with family friend and pot head Kevin (Mark Webber). A scene of them apartment hunting is inserted into the film and feels entirely forced and unnecessary, as it is not mentioned again. Later, a half-argument they have makes little sense and also has no bearing or resolution other than to form the plot for Jenny's ridiculous Xmas Eve incident.
Happy Christmas is not a great follow-up to Drinking Buddies, which is a film filled with energy, pacing and a dynamic screenplay. All three aforementioned elements are desperately lacking in Happy Christmas, and despite the excellent characters, the results are underwhelming.