These two were brought together by the tenuous theory that George Michael’s hit song, Last Christmas, might provide the seed for an optimistic romantic comedy set during the holiday season. British producer David Livingstone (Judy) was pondering on Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life when he came up with the idea. He then took it to Thompson, who thought of Feig as director because of his fondness for films with strong female roles.
It’s set in 2017 in a London dressed up to look its best, with lots of Christmas sparkle and an ensemble cast of popular faces starting with Game of Thrones‘ Emilia Clarke as Kate, a girl whose hopes of becoming a singer are fading with each unsuccessful audition. She’s also been reduced to couch-surfing because she can’t bear to live at home with her doting but demanding mother, Petra. She’s played by Thompson with a greying plait, a wardrobe of cardigans and an Eastern European accent. Coupled with an air of theatrical melancholy, it quickly confirms her as the star of the show. Her husband, Ivan (Boris Isakovic) is also in retreat from her, having taken refuge in a night job as a taxi driver.
The script was co-written by Thompson and British performance artist Bryony Kimmings, who clearly has a passion for visual gags because the script has planted opportunities for them everywhere – especially when Kate gets to Yuletide Wonderful, the shop where she works. Owned by the habitually sleek Michelle Yeoh, who calls herself Santa because it suits the tone of the place, it’s a glittering cave of kitsch designed expressly to assault the eye and outrage the senses. Kate herself is required to get into the spirit of things by wearing an elf costume.
Even so, she and the costume are in danger of being upstaged by her eyebrows, which seem to be on a comic trajectory of their own. They’re seldom still.
Romance arrives when she meets Tom (Henry Golding from Crazy Rich Asians), a handsome mystery man whose idea of a date is to take her on a walking tour of London’s hidden places. Scorning mobile phones because he believes that you should explore a city looking up, rather than down, he becomes both her confidant and supporter while remaining strangely elusive. We have to contain our curiosity, however, until the last narrative twist.
For the moment, it’s Kate’s state of disorganisation which takes centre stage, along with her relentless introspection and late-night drinking bouts. Admittedly, she does have an excuse. She’s now alienated so many of her friends by drunkenly trampling all over their fondest possessions that she has nowhere to sleep. Eventually, having exhausted all other options, she gives in and goes home to mother, who greets her with yet another torrent of unwelcome advice.
There are plenty of funny bits. Thompson is a delight and I appreciated the controlled elegance displayed by Yeoh in affording us a rare glimpse of her sense of humour. But the central romance lacks any trace of spontaneity and there’s something very stagey and deliberate in the way Kate is steered towards the realisation that altruism is a healthier alternative to her old habit of non-stop self-absorption.
Feig does get things together for a grand finish full of feel-good moments. Clarke finally delivers in this scene. But I came away with an increased admiration for Richard Curtis and his facility for whipping unassuming ensemble comedies into confections which send you out with an urge to experience the most cheering gags all over again. Admittedly, Feig and Thompson are trying for something a little more serious here but they’re also less adroit when it comes to keeping sentimentality out of the picture.