Aside from the acting, everything about "Happy Christmas" is half-realized - from its vague-ish premise, perspective on living with disappointment or even its basic story.
Writer-director Swanberg's latest film shares the same tone and tenor as "Drinking Buddies," another low-key, slice-of-life story directed by the indie filmmaker. Although "Happy Christmas" is billed as a comedy, it's definitely more a dramatic character study with comedic elements than a belly-laugh inducing comedy.
The strength of this understated story is the nuanced performances from its three main stars - especially Lynskey, who is best known for the over-the-top stalker Rose on "Two and a Half Men." Lynskey delivers a subtle, natural performance as a normal woman whose domestic, stay-at-home life is shaken up by the arrival of a wayward, rudderless alcoholic. Lynskey and Kendrick share a number of fun, dynamic scenes together -- and its their relationship as sisters-in-law which forms the true narrative arch of "Happy Christmas."
But all three actors are upstaged by the toddler (Swanberg's real life son), who steals every scene he's in and delivers the biggest laughs.
Although the core cast brought their A-game, everything else about this plodding, meandering comedy-drama is underwhelming. The best slice-of-life or character-study films have dynamically interesting characters or dramatic stakes - and neither of these elements are very strong in "Happy Christmas."
The characters, though well-acted and relatable, are pretty bland. Even the inclusion of "Girls" star Lena Dunham and indie actor Mark Webber doesn't add much to the film - their flat supporting characters merely reveal how annoying Kendrick's character can be. Throw those vanilla characters into a perhaps too-grounded/ordinary of a story, and the result is a troupe of unremarkable characters slightly annoying each other for the duration of a movie that feels longer than its 90-minute running time.
And in the end of this story, very little changes for any of the characters. They will go on with their mundane lives, which pretty much follow the same trajectories going out as they did coming in. Arguably Lynskey's character undergoes the most evolution, but "Happy Christmas" doesn't do enough to make this life change seem very significant, so it gets lost amid other character conflicts.
The fundamental dramatic stakes of "Happy Christmas" relate to discontentment -- but nothing in this story stresses how (or if) any of the characters are truly desperate to change their lives. Instead, this film is perfectly OK with telling a story about people who want more from life ... or not ... either outcome is fine.
Even at a brief 88-minutes, "Happy Christmas" doesn't make any strong plot, premise or character decisions that would warrant or demand any audience member sit through its entire running time.
Final verdict: With its half-hearted story, bland characters and lukewarm dramatic stakes, "Happy Christmas" feels like the big-screen version of your friend complaining about their ordinary life in the most mundane manner possible. It's a well-acted movie that tells a story that doesn't move or nudge the emotional meter much (if at all).
"Happy Christmas" is now in theaters with a limited nationwide release, available on-demand on iTunes and is rated R for "language, drug use and some sexual content."