Provincetown Film Fest Review: ‘Happy Christmas’

happy christmas

Film: Happy Christmas
Directed by: Joe Swanberg
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey

Joe Swanberg, the creative mind behind 2013’s decent dramatic comedy Drinking Buddies, has returned to the helm to direct, star in and write a film that is equal parts preachy about modern values and the family dynamic. Unfortunately, unlike how Drinking Buddies had characters we were interested in as they made mistakes, Happy Christmas‘ most interesting role to watch is that of Swanberg’s character’s infant child. The main theme of old-school family values versus new hipster-like values drives the film straight into pretentious mediocrity. You know, the ultimate battle between getting a career and providing for a family versus drinking, smoking weed, and doing nothing except for existing.

Happy Christmas follows Jeff and Kelly (Swanberg and Two and a Half Men star Melanie Lynskey, respectively) who welcome Jeff’s irresponsible sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick) into their home during Christmastime. Jenny’s alcohol abuse and constant marijuana smoking has put a rift in the family dynamic that Jeff and Kelly have created as the seemingly happy couple start releasing their aggressions in destructive ways.

Anna Kendrick, seemingly one of American cinema’s sweethearts at this moment after Pitch Perfect, plays the film’s dramatic antagonist, Jenny. Jenny represents a very modern way of living. By that I mean drinking, smoking, having sex, and not working as much as she can–or at all for that matter. In some ways, this kind of character can be enthralling to watch as she grows to learn why she’s stuck in neutral in her life. Instead, we get a character that is increasingly unlikable as she is set in her own ways and displays almost no sense of regret/change. How Jeff and Kelly react to her character’s actions is even more predictable but that’s also a fault with making a film about the generic dysfunctional family dynamic.

Joe Swanberg decided to film Happy Christmas as if it were a home movie, which is honorable, especially when you are making a film about a family during Christmastime. His footage shot on super 16mm works relatively well as the viewer is welcomed in like a member of the family in the film with the home video-like presentation. It’s too bad that the whole film doesn’t focus specifically on what Jeff and Kelly have going on for them though, because Jenny’s arc is close to excruciatingly boring. Jeff and Kelly’s 2-year-old son even steals the show as the baby that constantly has a dedicated look of indifference on his face as his parents and aunt do stupid things to satisfy weirdly primal needs.

Lena Dunham of Girls fame even shows up to play Jenny’s enabling friend, Carson, in what I can only deduce is a retread of her character on her aforementioned HBO show. This character enables Jenny to keep causing disruption in Jeff and Kelly’s marriage and disassociates herself when the blame is thrown out. She successfully displays another modern human being from today’s generation but that doesn’t mean we have to like her. Even more annoying than her character in Girls, Dunham constructs a cinematic presence of that one friend that you can trust as far as you can spit.

If there were one thing that this film succeeded in spades at, it would be the running time it inhabits. 78 minutes is shockingly lean compared to today’s norm of long and over-bloated films, and that facet was completely welcomed. Although the film does shove some very universal messages about family and over-reliance on your fellow man in your face, 78 minutes is a great amount of time to make a point and get out. When the end credits rolled, it was exactly where it should have ended. Their may be some gripes with closure of the character arcs but personally, these characters are sometimes so unlikable that you don’t really care how they end up. Swanberg showed with Drinking Buddies that he could balance drama and comedy but with Happy Christmas, it seems that everything he learned with that first film was thrown away as it seemed that he started from square one again.

GRADE: D+

Review written by: Sam Cohen — (Follow him on Twitter)

Sam Cohen

Sam Cohen is that guy you can't have a conversation with without bringing up Michael Mann. He is also incapable of separating himself from his teenage angst (looking at you, Yellowcard). Read on as he tries to formulate words about movies!
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