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MOVIE REVIEW: It's Christmas in July with HAPPY CHRISTMAS

movie still from HAPPY CHRISTMAS
movie still from HAPPY CHRISTMASMagnolia Pictures

One look at Joe Swanberg’s HAPPY CHRISTMAS and you can fully appreciate why W.C. Fields once intoned, “Never work with children or animals” because with a child as adorable and scene-stealing as Swanberg’s 2-year old son Jude, you’ll be upstaged every time. And that’s exactly what happens in this latest slice of life from Swanberg.

Jeff and Kelly are your average couple. Living in Chicago, Jeff is a struggling filmmaker while Kelly, a writer by trade, is now a stay at home mom with their son, Jude. Unfortunately, since Jude’s birth, Kelly hasn’t had the time to write, causing some unspoken angst for her. With the rapidly approaching Christmas holidays, Jeff invites his "baby" sister Jenny to come visit. Having just been dumped by her boyfriend, Jeff rationalizes that Jenny needs the change of scenery, needs a place to stay, needs her family, and he and Kelly need some free babysitting for Jude. Unfortunately, Jenny needs more babysitting than Jude.

With her suitcase barely in the door, Jenny starts up with irresponsible and unappreciated behavior, refusing to help do the dishes in favor of heading out drinking with her friend Carson. Jeff makes excuses for his sister, but Kelly sees the handwriting on the wall, especially when Jenny gets black-out drunk at a party and Jeff has to get up at 2m and go retrieve her. As if that’s not bad enough, unapologetic and nursing a bad hangover the next morning, she blows off babysitting Jude, which means Jeff and Kelly calling on their friend Kevin to lend a hand. Of course, party-hearty Jenny sees Kevin as the solution for her freshly-dumped self and makes a play for him. . .which he accepts.

As Jeff keeps making excuses for Jenny’s unremorseful behavior, Kelly gets more agitated and frustrated; that is until Jenny inspires her to write an erotic novel a la “Fifty Shades of Grey” as a way to make some fast cash to tide the family over while she concentrates on a more serious novel. Although Kelly starts writing (with a constant infusion of ideas from Jenny and Carson, which provide the most hilarious moments in the film) and begins to see Jenny in a different light, a leopard doesn’t change its spots and Jenny’s excessive drinking and bad behavior almost burns the house down on Christmas Eve leading Jeff and Kelly to wonder if its time to cut the family ties that bind.

Having just seen Anna Kendrick in Swanberg’s “Drinking Buddies” last year and that collaborative success, I was expecting to see something akin to that again between the two with HAPPY CHRISTMAS. While not “Drinking Buddies”, we do have Anna Kendrick's Jenny doing more than her fair share of drinking - to complete drunken excess. As Jenny, Kendrick pushes the envelope of disconcerting unlikeability - both in Jenny's behavior with drugs and drunkenness in the house with a toddler and in the dismissive way she treats everyone and everything - no big deal about a fire, no big deal about getting drunk and passing out at a party, no big deal about getting drunk and pushing away Mark Webber's Kevin (who like Swanberg is fabulous in scenes with Jude, something we saw with Mark's film last year where he had his toddler son play his on screen son). Kevin may be a pot dealer, but he's a responsible nice guy with his friends and around Jude, something which Webber succinctly captures. Lena Dunham's Carson works as Jenny's best (or only) friend and Dunham more than amuses with her cross-legged crotch shots and some matter-of-fact humor. Interesting is that the responsible and loving behavior of everyone in the film but for Jenny just makes her that much more unforgivable.

As a couple, the characters of Jeff and Kelly are beyond true to life; and like their characters, the chemistry between Melanie Lynskey and Swanberg is comfortable, organic and resonates. Individually, each is likeable, real and believable. It's easy to see why the joy of parenting a cute baby like Jude would become Kelly's focus and take her away from writing. It's also easy to see why, when Jeff gives her a gift of time for writing, he similarly falls in love with being Mr. Mom. There is never a moment you don’t accept Swanberg and Lynskey as a couple or family unit with Jude.

Completely indisputable is that Joe Swanberg has one of the cutest kids on the planet! Jude outshines everyone and watching father and son play father and son is pure joy. I think everytime the two of them were on screen, my face broke out in a smile. So much of the organic nature of the film as a whole revolves around everyone’s reactions to Jude and it works.

Not surprised to see this next “growing up” phase in a maturing Joe Swanberg’s work. As he and I talked about during our interview for “Drinking Buddies”, his work mirrors the stages of his life and that of his friends. It's only natural as a husband and father to make HAPPY CHRISTMAS his next film chapter as well.

Loosely crafted story is palpable and has an easy natural flow but as a result of the loose construct, also leaves us with some rough unresolved edges - like Mark Webber’s Kevin who is left freezing on a street outside a bar when Jenny storms off. We like Kevin. He's friends with Kelly and Jeff. We care about what happens to him so it's a let down when there's no resolve. Similarly, Dunham's Carson disappears. And where are the repercussions for Jenny's disrespect and dangerous misconduct? She's forgiven with no remorse or retribution for her lapses of judgment and lack of concern for destroying her brother's house and possibly hurting his child? What family member would let someone off the hook for that?

As comes as no surprise, shooting on 16mm, Ben Richardson’s cinematography is textured with a 70's cinematic feel, particularly in the basement Tiki bar. Richardson lights the wood so beautifully, so much so that we can see the texture of the wood and the weaving, as well as polished sheen from years of wear. Lighting in that basement bar where Jenny is staying speaks volumes thanks to low light and the creation of shadows within the room, metaphoric as to Jenny's hidden issues with drugs and alcohol and the darkness of her fuck-ups. Great contrast with the brightly light family living room alcove with open windows and vibrant Christmas tree and presents Christmas morning; akin to everything now out in the open, everyone knows Jenny is a screw up as she almost burned the house down.

A single camera largely hand-held lensing style (obvious given the confined spaces within the house - hallways, small kitchen, basement bar room, Kevin's apartment - which actually had the most open space, cornered office space) really allowed Swanberg to focus on character and relationships. Didn't need to create tone or story through visuals. The characters did that just being who they were and the interpersonal exchanges therein.

And stay through the credits. Some hilarious “Easter eggs” with Lynskey, Kendrick and Dunham.

Another slice of life from Joe Swanberg. It's Christmas in July with HAPPY CHRISTMAS!

Written and Directed by Joe Swanberg

Cast: Joe Swanberg, Melanie Lynskey, Anna Kendrick, Lena Dunham, Mark Webber, Jude Swanberg