Meeting “the family” for the holidays can be messy.
Even without a pandemic and the possibility that you’ll end up hosting a “super spreader” event. Even if, say, you’re in a long-term single-sex relationship, you’ve never “come out” to your parents, Dad’s running for mayor and you make your girlfriend hide who she is “just for five days.”
Say the trite “joke” you just know someone will trot out with me — “How long can it be?”
That’s the premise of “Happiest Season,” a Kristen Stewart/Mackenzie Davis gay holiday romance making its debut on Hulu. And “messy” is its one-word review.
The leads make a cute couple, Dan Levy is here because even a same sex rom-com needs a snarky “gay best friend.” And little flashes of warmth and wit intrude on this sentimental, uneven, somewhat brittle holiday “message” with a movie sloppily wrapped around it.
It’s got Levy (“Schitt’s Creek”) cracking gay and Stewart taking a pratfall. Aubrey Plaza shows up as SOMEbody’s “ex,” and Mary Steenbergen amuses with even the lamest lines as the wound-tight mother who doesn’t know her daughter Harper (Davis) is gay, or that Abby (Stewart), the “roommate” she’s brought home for the holidays, is her loving life partner.
“Abby! What are you doing in the closet?”
Actress turned writer-director Clea Duvall (“The Intervention”) and comic actress turned first-time co-writer Mary Holland made something of a holiday hash of it, a movie with good moments buried under clumsy ones, with plenty of pandering layered on top of sentiment.
Abby is a Phd candidate and Pittsburgh dog-walker who loves local journalist Harper. But Abby, whose parents died some years before, isn’t into Christmas. Harper impulsively invites her home to meet the family. And we get the idea she regrets that pretty much the same moment she does.
Harper never told her parents. Dad (Victor Garber) has political ambitions, Mom (Steenbergen) is the queen of Keeping Up Appearances. Now “wouldn’t be a good time.”
So much for that ring Abby picked out, over the objections of Very Gay John (Levy). Abby is “trapping (Harper) in a box of heteronormality” with this Big Gesture.
Abby doesn’t find out about Harper’s secret until they’re almost “home,” so she’s trapped herself — the “roommate,” odd woman out in the “perfect” family’s very political over-scheduled holiday traditions and parties.
The running gag of Abby being “a poor orphan with no place else to go” gets old, to her and us. There’s also Mom’s shameless effort to throw Harper into the arms of her high school beau (Jake McDorman) and Harper’s endless efforts to please her parents, tolerate her daffy younger sister (co-writer Holland) and win the endless competition that characterizes her relationship with married-with-two-kids sister Sloane (Alison Brie).
It doesn’t matter that Sloane and her husband quit their law firm to “raise the kids” and that they’re “selling gift baskets” as a fallback career.
“We create curated gift experiences inside of handmade reclaimed wood vessels!”
The only people Abby has to talk to are John, who keeps calling her to shame her “back out of that closet,” and Riley, Harper’s “real” high school ex. She’s underplayed by Plaza as a dry, above-it-all sounding board with nothing funny to say or do.
That makes “Happiest Season” a holiday rom-com with two “firsts,” a K-Stew pratfall (Comedy isn’t her forte.) and Aubrey Plaza playing the comic “straight man.”
Duvall can’t make Abby and Harper “sneaking around” to be together in a house where they’ve been separated funny, can’t find a rhythm that allows the story to flow from laughs to romance to sentiment and heartache.
It staggers toward an ending that you just KNOW they won’t have the guts to get right.
The comic highlights are Levy’s over-the-top turn as John, Brie’s biting sibling rival sister and a WAY over the top shoplifting “interrogation” by mall cops.
The emphasis is thrown at the melodrama in the weary “late coming out” story, and that’s handled so gracelessly that Davis, equally at home in comedy and drama, is hung out to dry.
Stewart? A holiday movie isn’t the place to learn that pretending you’re in love with a teen vampire is easy, comedy is hard.
MPA Rating: PG-13 for some language
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Dan Levy, Mary Steenbergen, Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, Mary Holland, Victor Garber, Jake McDorman, Clea Duvall and Mary Holland.
Credits: Directed by Clea Duvall, script by Clea Duvall and Mary Holland. A Sony/eOne film on Hulu.
Running time: 1:42