Here it is, that “lost” chapter of “Love, Actually” that we’ve been rummaging through the vaults for. “Last Christmas,” they’re calling it. “Dull, Actually” is more accurate.
It’s a mopey holiday romance leaning heavily on the “Game of Thrones” charms of Emilia Clarke and the music of George Michael.
And if you’re not ready to question her ability to play comedy and second guess the value the world puts on the George Michael songbook by the time this has burned through 102 minutes you’ll never get back, you never will be.
Clarke tries to sparkle every line the Emma Thompson/Bryony Kimmings screenplay gives her. She laughs. A lot. But she’s the only one guffawing and showing a lot of teeth as she does, because there’s virtually nothing here that will tickle anybody else.
Clarke stars as Kate, “Katerina” to her Croatian family. She’s 30ish, has just moved out of her parents’ duplex and is schlepping her suitcase all over London Towne, still wearing her costume for work. She’s unintentionally made a career out of being an elf-clerk at Yuletide Wonderful, owned by the Chinese emigre who goes by the name “Santa” (Michelle Yeoh).
“Time to sparkle,” Santa growls.
It’s a tacky yet quirky shop, and it doesn’t pay enough to let Kate set up housekeeping on her own. So she imposes on one friend after another, thoughtlessly and clumsily breaking this and sullying that, and picking up guys in bars that she brings “home” for a little pre-Christmas coitus.
We’ve seen her as a child, warbling a George Michael song with her choir back in pre-breakup Yugoslavia. That’s her goal — singing on the London stage. The auditions she tumbles into suggest how unlikely that dream is — pleasant (ish) but untrained voice, pathologically tardy, self-absorbed. Maybe delusional.
Hell, she should try New York.
Santa seethes at Kate’s carelessness on the job. Her thick-accented mother (Emma Thompson) leaves her voice mails by metric tonne. And losing one more set of friends by being the roommate from Hell might be her wakeup call.
Ours? Well, we’re going to stick around to see how she ever made friends in the first place.
Then the tall handsome stranger, Tom, strolls into her life. Henry Golding of “Crazy Rich Asians” plays this patient, eccentric and very-interested-in-Kate Londoner. He’s obsessed with getting her to take a walk with him. She chuckles how much he’s “not my type” and how the places he wants to walk have a “serial killery” vibe.
But he’s always looking up. And as she looks up with him, she notices the glories of London in all its holiday splendor, and its quirky architectural history. He shows her his secret garden. And even though she’s still doing the barfly-hookup thing after they meet, she continues to take walks with Tom — appreciating the beauty, checking in at the homeless shelter where he volunteers.
“Might as well have ‘SAINT’ tattooed on your forehead!”
She takes an interest in the only way she knows how. She comes on to him. Tom brushes that off in a “we just met” way, and the walks continue.
Kate, of course, has a secret. She’s been sick, we’re told. She meets her doctor with her mum and gets read the riot act over her unhealthy lifestyle.
Tom has his own secrets. And if you sit there pondering, as I did, “WHY are they together?” well, you’ll figure both secrets out before the first one is revealed.
Golding has an effortless charm here that we haven’t seen in his other performances. But his inability to spark chemistry with any leading lady is an ongoing issue, and that makes the gears grind in this syrupy Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids,” “Ghostbusters”) confection. It’s why we sit and wonder why these two are “together,” because the script and performances don’t make their connection organic or believable.
Clarke’s character arc is that she develops compassion being around Tom, starts helping with the shelter, going easier on her mom, matchmaking for her lonely boss. She’s not awful as Kate, but the strain shows. At least her green eyes match her elf costume, damn near perfectly.
But like a lot of Feig’s recent work, it’s the “woke” elements of “Last Christmas” that seem to get more attention than the BASIC dramatic/romantic/comic/sentimental stuff. Anti-immigrant bigotry (a subtext in a couple of movies this holiday season, “Knives Out,” for instance), the ugly underpinnings of Brexit, and a gay couple just needing family acceptance, all are here and designed to deliver the warm fuzzies.
So is the heavy reliance on the George Michael Songbook. Repeating his “Last Christmas” title tune ad nauseum does him no favors, and removing his performance from many of the songs emphasizes his inadequacies as a lyricist — with that song, in particular, standing out as insipid. And the ultimate spoiler.
After a while, though, we get ahead of the editors, recognizing “Oh, this’d be the PERFECT place to use ‘Faith,'” etc. Kate, of course, dozes off and we ALL know what song will awaken her before she go goes.
The banter is, first scene to last, awful. Delivering bad dialogue at top speed doesn’t make it better, Ms. Clarke. Why does she keep saying she’s from “The Former Yugoslavia?” NO emigre would refer to her homeland that way. Her mother doesn’t.
Yeoh looks perplexed enough to mutter “This is supposed to be FUN?” between takes.
Still, there’s one great thing Tom and “Last Christmas” have to teach us. Kate wants to give him her digits. “Where’s your phone?”
He locked it in a cubbard, he says. And once he did, he stopped looking down and started looking up at the city. A lovely sentiment. Not the only one in the film, mind you. But the only one that stuck with me from this instantly forgotten treacle.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language and sexual content
Cast: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Emma Thompson
Credits: Directed by Paul Feig, screenplay by Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings. A Universal release.
Running time: 1:42