REVIEW: Happy Christmas

Reviewed by Mike Palovcsik

If your idea of a happy Christmas centers around Jimmy Stewart or Chevy Chase, you're in for disappointment. If your idea of a good time is an indie film with humorous dialogue, a cast at the top of their game, a heartwarming story, and a born-to-act infant who knocks his feature-film debut out of the park, you're in for a real treat! My sister and I were lucky to get standby seats at a sold-out screening of this chestnut at the Wisconsin Film Festival, on a very Un-Christmas-y spring day.

Premiering at Sundance earlier this year, Happy Christmas is a barely-feature-length narrative that tells the tale of an average young family in present day Chicago as the New Year approaches. Jenny (Anna Kendrick, who I have not been a big fan of in the past, but has never been better than here) arrives in Chicago raw after a painful breakup. She is planning to be in the Midwest for an extended stay with her brother, Jeff (filmmaker Joe Swanberg, the best of the talented cast) and his family. She has good intentions, but is highly immature. She parties too hard with her friend Carson (Lena Dunham), and unintentionally drives a rift between her brother and his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey). In a series of hilariously touching scenes, Jenny attempts to repair the damage she has caused by mentoring Kelly on the nuances of writing an explicit adult novel as a means for Kelly to make some money while "working up" to a real novel.

 What this movie lacks in Christmas tree girth, it makes up for with quality improvised free-form dialogue.

What this movie lacks in Christmas tree girth, it makes up for with quality improvised free-form dialogue.

If you are not familiar with Swanberg’s body of work, this one is a great primer. Using ad-libbed script direction -- deployed with less success in his 2013 romantic comedy ‘Drinking Buddies’-- he lets the audience “peek in” on a week in the life of his characters: their banal day-to-day first-world problems, authentic marital conflicts, and brother/sister arguments.

[Check out our Spoiler Alert Podcast review of 'Drinking Buddies' here]

Despite using a similar stylistic feel to that film ('Drinking Buddies' had a climax where the lead character cut his hand on a nail; In 'Happy Christmas' it was burning a pizza) and utilizing some of the same cast and crew, this time around most of the characters are less self-involved, more sympathetic, and generally more real.

 Swanberg with real-life son, who has lost some pudge since the filming...probably in preparation for another role

Swanberg with real-life son, who has lost some pudge since the filming...probably in preparation for another role

What worked:

  • Swanberg shot this movie on 16mm film, so that in the audience I actually felt like I was watching authentic grainy home videos that are so often captured at the holidays.
  • The director was a fantastic actor, who also wrote, produced, and edited the movie. He’s done some cameos a la Hitchcock in previous films, but truly owned his scenes here.
  • Using his actual home as the primary set for the film, and his actual baby boy as the child star of the show kept a very authentic vibe intact (and probably saved a bunch of cash).

What didn't work:

  • The aforementioned adult novel brainstorming was hilarious in the feature; It did not warrant an ultra-extended treatment in the closing credits.
  • I love Christmas movies. For two months at the end of every year, they are all I watch. So, the Christmas morning scene could have been a little "Holly Jollier" for my taste.
  • The indie rock soundtrack, preferred by Swanberg in other films as well, could have at least been spiced up with some holiday standard covers for this one.

Brass tacks:

The character stories keep you interested longer than some other "outlined script" movies shot by Swanberg, and it was easy for the the viewer to draw parallels to their own friends and family. If you have the opportunity to see this movie, do so.

B