Review: ‘Happy Christmas’

Anna Kendrick & Lena Dunham in Joe Swanberg's 'Happy Christmas'

Written & Directed by Joe Swanberg
Starring Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber, Joe Swanberg & Lena Dunham

Now Playing in Select Theaters

That ‘Happy Christmas’ released on July 25th is ironic and also makes perfect sense. Christmas in July just seems like the fake holiday that writer-director Joe Swanberg would celebrate and improvise like so much of his movies’ dialogue. But this is not exactly a holiday movie so much as a movie during a holiday. It’s as secular as unwrapping presents beneath the air-conditioner.

It follows that nothing is too profound in Swanberg’s latest film about a residential Chicago couple whose lives get infiltrated by one of their immature family members. But the joys of experiencing a small film like this don’t rely on deep thoughts and revolutionary storytelling. In fact they’re quite the opposite. Happy Christmas, like most Swanberg films, thrives in providing quaint banalities that add up to small humorous and impactful moments; in other words, life.

Official Poster for Joe Swanberg's 'Happy Christmas'The couple in question is Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and Jeff (Swanberg) and the family member is Jeff’s younger sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick), who shows up one night in December. She is a rather regular unemployed 20-something that might have been a bland Girls archetype had Kendrick not played her. She’s there to stay in their basement for a while and helps with her brother’s baby Jude (Swanberg’s own son who’s humorously adept), but ends up failing some simple responsibilities.

That includes getting passed out drunk at a party the first night, turning her longtime friend Carson (Lena Dunham) into an apologetic chaperone. Her hangover renders her useless to babysit that morning so Kelly calls a reliable, occasional pot-smoker friend Kevin (Mark Webber) to watch Jude instead. Jenny, embarrassed, but also intrigued by his presence, eventually hooks up with him, a small fling that involves some ditsy improvisational banter and, naturally, some marijuana smoking.

Swanberg, as always, lets his camera linger, unworried about any awkwardness that might spontaneously arise. The movie, covered under the Mumblecore umbrella, runs just under 80 minutes but you feel like you know these characters as though it were two hours. That’s because we stay with them—in the bathroom, on the couch, in the kitchen– even after the conversation ends and someone leaves the room. What does Jenny do while she waits for Kevin to find his pot in the kitchen? Well, not a lot, as you’d expect, which is somehow reassuring if not a tedious meditation.

Like Swanberg’s 2013 hit Drinking Buddies, which concentrated on the subtleties of romantic relationships, Happy Christmas lightly investigates the dynamics of gender roles, this time through the lens of marriage. There is little melodrama, but there is realistic discussion negotiating work and responsibilities. Jeff lives in an office most of the day while Kelly, a writer and aspiring novelist, plays the parent, categorizations that each carry their own personal frustrations.

Kelly voices some of these concerns to Carson and Jenny over a beer by the basement’s uniquely decorated Tiki-bar. Soon enough the three are chatting about her writing erotic novels, thinking up fantastical scenarios that will earn millions of dollars, an ideal environment that allows them to riff on silly ideas. It matches the equally bubbly and angsty Kendrick, who seems in control of herself one moment and completely unhinged the next. “I don’t want to be the person who does the same kind of stuff,” she says while getting high. Nobody’s really listening.

She continues on with little forward direction, similar to the film, which provides not so much a standard story arc as a slope. Why do some people have a tough time growing up? Happy Christmas doesn’t really answer that question. It’s just content to contemplate it for a while.

– Jake Kring-Schreifels

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