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Saturday, August 2, 2014

Review: Happy Christmas

Joe Swanberg is a director who has been making a name for himself with his quiet, low-budget, low-key  movies. First breaking out with 2007’s Hannah Takes the Stairs, Swanberg hit the apex of critical acclaim with the 2013 Drinking Buddies, starring Olivia Wilde. 
I was no big fan of Hannah Takes the Stairs. It’s one of those movies that revels in its indie status so much, goes so far out of the way to break the traditional narrative formats, that it feels more like work than pleasure to watch. But on a rainy day I found my way to Drinking Buddies and was astonished at how much more accessible Swanberg’s work had become. It managed to defy typical narrative structure while still feeling fresh, authentic, and above all, enjoyable.

Swanberg’s newest effort, Happy Christmas, unfortunately does not continue the upwards trajectory of improvement, landing somewhere in between Hannah Takes the Stairs and Drinking Buddies

Happy Christmas is the story of Jenny (Anna Kendrick), an immature 20-something who moves in with her older brother Jeff (Joe Swanberg) and his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) after a rough break-up. Jenny takes on babysitter duties and struggles to get her life back on track while trying the patience of her brother and his family. Predictably, along the way, her free spirited nature helps Kelly realize she can loosen up on her mommy duties and make time for her true passion: writing. 

Coming in at a mere 78 minutes, the film’s problem is almost too obvious: it never goes anywhere. It feels like the first two-thirds of a good movie, and just when I found myself getting invested, bam. Credits. I applaud the attempt at an atypical narrative, but I’m still a bit too old-fashioned for this kind of movie. I don’t need a dramatic third act or a final crisis to resolve, but I do need an ending. Something with at least a semblance of closure or finality; something to show for the time I spent. 

In spite of that lack of closure, the movie isn’t a complete waste. In fact, this might be my favorite Anna Kendrick performance to date. Kendrick plays the opposite of the typical good-girl role we see her in: she’s immature, flippant, irritated. I liked that side of Kendrick, and she played it perfectly. Joe Swanberg also shines the most when he’s interacting with his on-screen and real-life infant son. It’s odd to say, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an infant so well-behaved and likable in a movie. 

If I had to sum up Happy Christmas in a word, the word would be “slight.” The movie isn’t difficult to watch and has some enjoyable moments, but it never gets off the ground in the way that I hoped it would. I give it a B-.

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