What happens when you try to make a movie entirely from the lyrics of a Christmas song? “Last Christmas” — the latest rom-com from Universal Studios — is the answer. Rom-coms seem to be a dying breed in movie theaters these days, since movie studios typically reserve the large cinema screens for their most epic projects, most notably superhero films. So it’s a welcome diversion to see something different at the theater, especially now as the holiday season is just around the corner.

The film tells the story of a 26-year-old Yugoslavian immigrant in London named Katarina — now calling herself Kate — played by Emilia Clarke. She has ambitions to become a professional singer, but her success is stunted by her selfishness. Consistently grouchy, lazy, and holding a humiliating job as an elf in a Christmas shop, she has a distant relationship with her family, especially her mother Petra, played by Emma Thompson. However, her outlook on life is flipped when she meets Tom — played by Henry Golding — who encourages her to look on the bright side of life, and start caring for others rather than herself.

Right from the beginning, it’s readily apparent what Kate’s character arc will be. Her inability to function as an adult is exaggerated to such a high degree that it’s nearly comical. But she does make changes in her behavior thanks to Tom’s intervention, and having him in her life turns her into a better person. It’s an appreciated evolution to her character — it just takes a while for the movie to get there.

Her love interest, Tom, is equally over the top, except in the sense that he is so lacking in flaws that it’s like he was created in a lab by women to be the perfect boyfriend. Of course, late in the film there’s a twist that reveals Tom’s true nature, and possibly explains why he seems too good to be true. However it borders on the preposterous, and leads to numerous questions that in the interest of keeping the film cohesive, are probably best left unanswered. 

If you’ve seen any other romantic comedy before, you’re probably able to predict all the plot beats. “Last Christmas” isn’t too different from its predecessors, relying on the same formula as all rom-coms that have preceded it, possibly being even more cliché by setting itself at Christmas time. But it’s easy to want these characters to fall in love, and it’s appropriate for the holiday season.

The script is unfortunately limited in this regard — partly because it follows the genre’s rubric —  but also because its plot was written around the lyrics of a Christmas song. The titular tune is just one of a dozen George Michael songs filling the soundtrack, so it’s at least joyful to listen to.

The film represents something of a shift for director Paul Feig, who until now was primarily a comedy veteran. It is a comedy certainly, but his lowbrow signature is all over the jokes, with cheap gags and punch lines viewers can spot a mile away. However it’s not without high points; Thompson provides a memorable — if not caricatured — comedic turn as Kate’s neurotic mother.

While it may be just as schmaltzy, stuffed with sentimentality, and predictable as the song it’s based on, the film is bouncy, upbeat, and ultimately leaves you with a good feeling. It might not stray far from the genre’s template, but that makes it like cinematic comfort food. You know what you are getting, and it’s not bad.

Three stars.

Good:

  • Classic George Michael soundtrack.
  • Good performances.
  • Gets audiences in the Christmas spirit.

Bad:

  • Run of the mill story.
  • Relies on cheap jokes.
  • Late plot twist is not great.
Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding fall in love at Christmas.
PHOTO COURTESY OF UNIVERSAL PICTURES
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