"HAPPY CHRISTMAS"-- 2 STARS
Last summer, audiences lucky enough to find and enjoy the Video On Demand hit "Drinking Buddies," starring Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston, got to discover the new writing and directing talent that is Joe Swanberg. Based out of Chicago and categorized by the industry as part of the indie "mumblecore" movement, Swanberg specializes in a certain breed of micro-budget films. His work relies heavily on improvisational skills employed by his performers to mold their characters themselves and take the story in different developmental directions.
In some cases, Swanberg won't give them a line-for-line script, but merely story goals that the actors are shooting for to meet during shooting, making the path choices to get there their own. The results are raw, character-driven slices-of-life that are heavily conversational. Swanberg's films move at a steady pace that immerses realistic settings as deeply as it does characters. Throughout it all, his films are accented with an approachable heart that floats between comedy and drama.
This all may seem and look plain on the surface, but there's an art to it. As evidenced by "Drinking Buddies," his first larger feature, Swanberg has begun to win over professional actors willing to cross over into this indie sub-genre and fresh style of performance. As a follow-up this summer, Swanberg steps in front of the camera and retains the mega-popular and former Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick for "Happy Christmas." The film premiered this past winter at the Sundance Film Festival and now finally opens this weekend for a limited nationwide theatrical release. It is also concurrently available on Video On Demand platforms for digital viewing at home.
Kendrick plays Jenny, an unfocused and directionless woman coming to a new city. She is getting over a bad breakup at Christmas time and arrives with her tail between her legs to squat in her big brother's Chicago bungaloo basement until she's back on her feet. Swanberg is Jeff, the responsible older sibling. He is a filmmaker and family man married to Kelly (frequent character actor Melanie Lynskey), a novelist turned stay-at-home mom to their two-year-old son Jude (Swanberg's own son). They are the stable grown-ups that don't party anymore and have now, essentially, acquired a second kid in the house, just one that's 27 instead of 2.
Rather than work or contribute around the house, Jenny goes out often to drink herself silly until the wee hours of the night and get together with her opinionated local friend Carson ("Girls" Emmy winner Lena Dunham). Piling mistake after mistake instead of sorting out her issues, she also begins to lead on Kevin (Mark Webber of "13 Sins" and "Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World"), one of Jeff and Kelly's friends, for weed and a flirtatious fling that fizzles at the first interruption of insecurity. Jenny's arrival and influence also reverberates and causes a few stirring changes for Jeff and Kelly, some good and some bad.
The acting is fine, but not noteworthy. Anna Kendrick can get just about anyone in the world to pay attention to her charisma, even if she's underplaying the selfish screw-up that she is here. Anna has wit to play within this improv game, as does Lena Dunham as her wingwoman. Even though he is capable of more, all Mark Webber gets to do is facilitate makeout sessions with Kendrick (easy paycheck there, twist his arm). Joe Swanberg makes it look easy playing the reliable father and benevolent big brother, but, somewhere, he's missing a signature scene that would cement his moral authority over the proceedings. Lynskey gets that bigger chance and her character arguably grows more than Kendrick's with Jenny's creative influence inspiring Kelly to write again in a different direction.
True to its mumblecore style, "Happy Christmas" meanders through this short story of realistic domestic fiction with long stretches of banter and conversation. There's a quirk and curiosity to it to some extent, but I feel it meanders too simply and too aimlessly compared to last summer's "Drinking Buddies." In that film, you where you were waiting for the "will-they-or-won't-they" other shoe to drop which gave you something compelling to follow with your attention as the details unfolded and character development expanded. There's not that equal heft here in "Happy Christmas." There's plenty going on, but little has bearing or target on any particular bigger picture. In total, this makes "Happy Christmas" a bit of a step back after last summer's promise.
LESSON #1: WHEN A YOUTHFUL INFLUENCE INSPIRES AN ADULT-- I know Jenny is 27, but her immaturity and free thinking ways count as a rejuvenating energy in her brother's household. Jeff gets to relive some youthful vices vicariously through his sister, giving him a break from work and monotony. Also, Jenny eventually becomes a partial muse of inspiration and partner to what Kelly wants to write, which frees her from that stagnant chores of being a stay-at-home mom. Call this reverse mentoring and the positive end of Jenny's part-time residency.
LESSON #2: THE EFFECTS OF IRRESPONSIBILITY-- The negative side of Jenny's habitation are the selfish and irresponsible mistakes she makes as the immature and unstable little sister. She can't handle her liquor and dabbles too strongly in marijuana. Jenny, like plenty of other single 20-somethings, shows little foresight or common sense to be around kids and doesn't help around the house. She's a bit of a mess that still has a great deal of growing up to do.
LESSON #3: YOU WILL ALWAYS LOVE AND TOLERATE YOUR FAMILY-- We'll end on an easy one. Through both her fleeing good moments and her many bad ones, Jeff and Kelly still love Jenny. She'll always be regarded and respected as a sister, aunt, and friend. I think plenty of families have their own "outlier" like Jenny. Pain in the ass or not, he or she is still family at the end of the day. They will always get our generosity and help.