HAPPY CHRISTMAS * 1 / 2
Starring Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Joe Swanberg, Mark Webber and Lena Dunham. Written and directed by Joe Swanberg.
Years ago, director David Gordon Green said that Kevin Smith “kind of created a Special Olympics for film,” in which case our current Gold Medalist must surely be the exasperatingly prolific, inexplicably trendy indie darling Joe Swanberg, who at not yet thirty-three years of age has already helmed dozens of indifferently photographed improvisational features about the relationship problems of tiresomely inarticulate twentysomethings. Swanberg has become the foremost chronicler of an entire generation’s belly-button lint without yet having demonstrated even the slightest interest in learning how to make a movie.
Common sense would seem to dictate that the more you do something, the better you’ll get at it. But as is the case with Kevin Smith’s increasingly dire films, the concept of on-the-job-training apparently doesn’t apply to Swanberg pictures either. And much as the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results, I keep foolishly heeding the assurances of my esteemed critical brethren that this latest Swanberg film will be worth my time. A pal promised that Happy Christmas was “a huge improvement over the other ones. It’s almost like a real movie.”
No. It isn’t.
Happy Christmas stars Anna Kendrick as a flighty twenty-seven year old who ends up crashing with her older brother (Swanberg) and his family, after breaking up with her boyfriend. She doesn’t seem to have a job — nor much interest in getting one — instead she just stumbles home drunk now and again then passes out in the basement, much to the chagrin of her sister-in-law (Melanie Lynskey) who passive-aggressively pouts and complains about being a stay-at-home Mom. Eventually, the emotionally shattering third-act conflict arises when a drunken Kendrick burns a frozen pizza in the oven on Christmas Eve and sets off the smoke alarm.
Yep, that’s all that happens in this high-stakes movie. Sorry for the spoilers.
Like most Swanberg efforts (and I use the term loosely) this one was improvised in front of the camera from an outline, instead of using one of those antediluvian Hollywood screenplay thingies. As such, it’s breathtakingly underthought, with an on-the-spot Kendrick unable to recall even the most basic information about her character when asked simple questions. We learn nothing of their parents, there is no extended family, no backstory, no visible means of income (we’re told Swanberg’s Big Brother makes movies, though he spends the entire film in his bathrobe) and nobody seems to have any interests outside of mumbling painfully unscripted small-talk at one another until the scenes mercifully end.
With a lone exception, the performers are hopelessly adrift. I’ve been a fan of diminutive spitfire Anna Kendrick since 2003’s Camp, but this recent sojourn into Swanberg territory (she also starred in last year’s bore Drinking Buddies) is severely diminishing her brand. She plays every moment here with the exact same deer-in-the-headlights frozen smile, giving us nothing of the character’s inner life and taxed beyond anyone’s ability as the locked camera rests upon her distractedly sitting on a couch, fiddling with her phone while the neighborhood weed dealer wanders offscreen to fix her a cocktail. (This breathtaking action sequence is rendered in a single unbroken real-time shot that lasts longer than Shoah.)
The usually reliable Melanie Lynskey is stuck squeaking stray lines of dialogue in the direction of her feet, while actor-director Swanberg spends most scenes sitting on the floor making goo-goo eyes at his own two-year-old son Jude, whose cuteness has been severely overestimated by the filmmaker. (I defer on this matter to my brilliant colleague Glenn Kenny, who pointed out how much the toddler looks like Harry Earles.) But then every once in a while Lena Dunham shows up and kicks the movie over into her unique time signature.
Now’s when regular readers will groan, knowing that I’ve been in the tank for Dunham and Girls ever since accidentally stumbling upon Tiny Furniture several years ago and falling head over heels. But Hanna Horvath really does light a firecracker under this indolent movie’s ass, sussing out conflicts between the characters and trying her best to lend this lackadaisical beast some measure of confrontation, or at least something resembling a pulse.
Alas, our Gen-Why Henry Jaglom is having none of it. Swanberg keeps steering Happy Christmas back to the same even-keeled, consequence-free Friendzone – with often staggering ineptitude.
For no discernable reason whatsoever, Happy Christmas was filmed on Super 16mm, a hugely expensive and time-consuming process for low-budget pictures like this one which are usually shot on cheapo digital. It makes no sense. The icky overhead lighting and sloppy handheld camerawork by no means call for it, and cinematographer Ben Richardson always seems to be having the damndest, most unfortunate time trying to keep anybody in focus.
I again defer, this time to the still included above this review. Notice how the empty beers on that far table and wall hangings in the background are razor sharp, while Kendrick and Dunham in the foreground remain a blur. The entire movie looks like that.