HAPPY CHRISTMAS (2014)
Starring Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber, Lena Dunham, Joe Swanberg, Jude Swanberg, Kris Swanberg, Mike Brune, Harry Burton, Megan Mercier, Chris Renton, Eldar Kim, Jessica Angelos, Tony Castro, Ezra Teitelbaum, Felix Pineiro, Michael Wawzenek, Sara Gaare and Ben Schwartz.
Screenplay by Joe Swanberg.
Directed by Joe Swanberg.
Distributed by Magnolia Pictures and Paramount Pictures. 85 minutes. Rated R.
If you ever had any doubt that mumblecore has gone mainstream, here’s your proof.
Happy Christmas – a film that just barely touches on the title holiday, by the way, which explains its theatrical release in the dead of summer – is working so hard to be a hipster slice of life that sometimes it feels like you aren’t even watching a movie.
Which is fun when you’re watching a tiny indie feature with unknown stars. It’s harder to pull off that kind of unforced naturalism when your film has a cast made up of a movie star (Anna Kendrick), a TV star (Lena Dunham) and one of the most respected character actresses in the biz (Melanie Lynskey).
So, right off the bat, obviously the acting is very good (well, maybe not so much Dunham, who too consistently feels like she is a comedienne riffing, though ironically she does appear to be the most comfortable with improv). However, what they are given to do and say is a little more problematic.
Every word of dialogue in Happy Christmas feels completely improvised – for better or for worse. It makes the dialogue feel more natural, but it also makes it stunted and vague and sometimes even unintelligible. Sometimes there is something to be said for having a script, where characters statements and responses are thought out a bit more and don’t go off on tangents or just sputter out.
However, this is “writer”/director Joe Swanberg’s filmmaking style, and it does not appear that adding Hollywood star power adds much to his technique. If anything, it seems to subtract from it – periodically the very fine actresses Kendrick and Lynskey appear to have lost their ways.
The storyline feels more like a sketch than an actual plot.
Jeff and Kelly (played by Swanberg and Lynskey) are a middle-class thirty-ish couple living in Chicago with their two-year-old son, Jude. The week before Christmas, Jeff’s younger sister Jenny (Kendrick) moves into their finished basement, moving back home after breaking up with a long-time boyfriend. Jenny drinks too much, smokes pot, hangs out with her best friend (Dunham) and starts dating the babysitter (Mark Webber).
There are some vague problems thrown into the mix. Jenny periodically gets so wasted that she passes out. She seems to have a problem with rejection. Kelly is overwhelmed with being a full-time mom and misses her previous life as a novelist.
Swanberg points the camera and tries to capture the fireworks of “real life.”
It is obvious that Swanberg is trying to make a movie that feels like home movies: reality for a YouTube world. He even gives a special “featuring” credit to the dog.
Swanberg also spends a bit too much time on footage of his not-as-cute-as-Swanberg-thinks toddler son, Jude. Nothing against the kid, it’s just there’s only so much footage of a two-year-old crumpling paper and throwing things that is of interest to anyone who is not related to him. One or two times are cute, but eventually most of Jude’s stuff should have ended up on the cutting room floor, or at least on a special edition reel just for mom and dad.
The problem is, the story is so slight that such scenes are probably necessary to bulk up the paltry running time. They even include a three-minute outtake after the end credits roll, just to get the running time to a depressingly short hour and 25 minutes. And even that was a stretch.
When one of the most important conflicts in a movie revolves around a burnt pizza, perhaps it’s time to rethink your storyline.
Jay S. Jacobs