Last Christmas

You probably won't listen to the titular George Michael song the same way after seeing Last Christmas. The movie, which uses Michael's songs throughout but is inspired by that one in particular, is a romantic-comedy with more on its mind than the majority of films in the genre. Even if it doesn't quite take its big ideas to a transcendent level, director Paul Feig wrings a lot of humor and humanity out of Emma Thompson's script, resulting in a picture that touches your heart and jump-starts your holiday spirit.

Emilia Clarke is a long way from Game of Thrones as Kate, an irresponsible young woman who lives in London. She works as an elf at a Christmas-themed shop run by the strategically-named Santa (Michelle Yeoh). Kate has no permanent residence. She bounces around the homes of her friends until they get sick of her behavior and kick her out, which happens frequently. Oftentimes, she wakes up next to a strange man after a night of drinking.

Kate's life seems like it might change for the better after a chance encounter with Tom (Henry Golding). He's handsome, charming, and normal, except for the fact that he doesn't carry a cell phone and is therefore hard to get in touch with. Because of that, Kate has to wait for him to come around, never quite knowing when he might do so. When they're together, though, it's magic.

Last Christmas generally plays like a typical – albeit smarter than average – rom-com for about two-thirds of its length. The final third gets into explaining Tom's slightly unusual behavior and what it means for Kate. This is where the movie reveals some bigger ideas. The script by Thompson (who has a supporting role as Kate's mom) and Bryony Kimmings takes a different approach to the theme of a misguided person being inspired to get their act together. What happens could have been a real eye-roller, but Feig gets the emotional tone just right, so that it's touching instead. If there's a message in Last Christmas, it's that other people can profoundly impact our lives in ways we could never imagine.

Excellent performances help the material sing. Emilia Clarke turns out to be a phenomenal rom-com lead, making Kate sympathetic despite her rather notable foibles. She deftly avoids the annoying, cutesy cliches of romantic-comedy heroines. And she's funny, too! Golding, following up a stellar turn in Crazy Rich Asians, avoids the “dream guy” tropes by giving Tom substance. You feel the goodness radiating from him.

A couple minor missteps occur along the way. Last Christmas shoehorns in a few out-of-place references to Brexit that are timely now, but will feel dated down the road. Increased development of the relationship between Kate and her sister Marta (Lydia Leonard), meanwhile, would have made the payoff to that subplot more resonant.

Those issues may exist, yet they're sufficiently mitigated by everything else. Last Christmas also has beautiful cinematography from John Schwartzman, plus inspired use of George Michael's catalog of songs. Those qualities, paired with a smart story and delightful performances, make the film a feel-good story that you might be inclined to add to your perennial holiday watch list.

out of four

Last Christmas is rated PG-13 for language and sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.