Universal

The recipe for any British holiday movie, the type pioneered by merchants of sap like Richard Curtis, requires a fine balance of sentimentality and cynicism. Yes, the former ingredient is more crucial—the audience should exit the theater with the sickly satisfaction that comes with eating one too many cookies—but even the gooiest stories have to come with a little bite. Last Christmas is a mostly charming new comedy from two seasoned practitioners of the form, the director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) and the writer Emma Thompson. Where the film succeeds, it’s because Feig and Thompson have remembered to mix in a little sour with the sweet.

Perhaps the appeal of Last Christmas is boosted by the sad scarcity of any kind of romantic comedy at the cinema these days. This project had a strange journey to the big screen. Its story is credited to Thompson and her husband, the actor Greg Wise, who were apparently inspired by the music of George Michael, particularly the everlasting Wham! earworm “Last Christmas.” The script, by Thompson and Bryony Kimmings, is structured around a rather goofy twist that’s easy to guess (the trailer itself is a giveaway). But, the film’s emotional stakes come not from any big plot reveal, but from the performance of Emilia Clarke as Kate, the lovable screwup at the center of the tale.

Clarke, who starred in Game of Thrones, has been largely stuck in Westeros for the past few years; her biggest film roles have been thankless ones, in franchise entries such as Terminator Genisys and Solo. Last Christmas is her first genuine opportunity to play an ordinary person—flawed, jokey, and burdened only with her own personal drama rather than the fate of a planet, an apocalyptic future, or a clutch of magical dragons. Clarke’s Kate is an acerbic, frequently drunk aspiring singer who is crashing on any couch she can find in London while she recuperates from an unspecified medical incident, and she’s an appealingly vulnerable fit for the part.

The protagonist is avoiding her overbearing family, refugees of the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s, including a mother (played by Thompson) who is overly fond of reminding everyone about the bleak details of her own past. Kate works at a chintzy Christmas-merchandise emporium, where her boss—another imperious figure, the appropriately named Santa (Michelle Yeoh)—despairs over Kate’s wayward ways. The best comic material in Last Christmas is of the sad screwball variety, as Kate bumbles through her work, home, and romantic life. Thompson and Kimmings’s script is refreshingly nonjudgmental, worrying less about Kate’s overreliance on booze and one-night stands than about whatever emotional anguish is behind them.

Into this boozy miasma wanders Tom (Henry Golding), a snappily dressed, perfectly coiffed walking mystery. A serene, level-headed foil for the unruly Kate, he breezes into Kate’s Christmas store to dispense helpful advice and flash the pearliest smile in recent cinema history. Golding plays Tom with relaxing charm, a step up from his adequate work in last year’s Crazy Rich Asians. Feig, who directed Golding as a more troubled character in last year’s A Simple Favor, puts the actor’s divine handsomeness to use this time around, trying to plumb whether someone this attractive and friendly could actually be too good to be true.

Golding’s chemistry with Clarke is not quite scintillating—more of an affectionate vibe than red-hot sexiness. Tom seems more concerned with getting Kate’s life back on track than with getting her into bed, and his extreme gentleness is a nice counterbalance to her severity. As the story unfolds and Tom’s curious lack of a home life (he doesn’t even use a cellphone!) becomes more of a plot point, it’s easy to guess where Last Christmas is heading. Still, the central couple’s repartee is enjoyable enough to power through the obviousness.

In the last act, it becomes time for the major syrup infusion, and the story takes a mawkish turn, though it’s not quite as clichéd as the cinema du Curtis (nobody is rushing to stop anybody else from boarding a plane). One’s tolerance may vary when it comes to live singalongs of George Michael songs and tender family reconciliations, but I found myself won over. Maybe I’d just been missing romance at the movies.

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