Saturday, June 28, 2014

One-Take Indie Film: Happy Christmas Is Mostly An Extended Babysitting Sequence!

The Good: Realistic
The Bad: Poor performances, Unremarkable direction, Virtually plotless
The Basics: Happy Christmas is an awkwardly-executed independent film that takes forever to get going . . . then goes nowhere.

Heard around my house: “I could go for the new Anna Kendrick movie.” “I have no interest in seeing Lena Dunham’s latest.” Today, a crisis of faith as the new Anna Kendrick movie features Lena Dunham! The truth is, while I stand by my assertion that far too often Kendrick is either typecast into a remarkably narrow role or she has limited acting abilities (I hope the former), my antipathy toward Girls (Season One is reviewed here!) makes me downright loathe watching anything new from Dunham. But, Kendrick and Dunham are together now in Happy Christmas and on a weekend where the box office is guaranteed to be dominated by Summer Blockbuster Season’s latest visual tripe, I figured I should take in something potentially more substantive.

Say what you will about Summer Blockbuster Season’s popcorn fare; at least the portions are good! At 82 minutes long, Happy Christmas is barely a feature film! While duration does not usually factor into my perceptions of films, in the case of Happy Christmas it did, almost from the beginning. The reason for this is simple: writer/director/actor Joe Swanberg starts out in Happy Christmas with lines or presentations of lines that strive for authenticity but are delivered in such a way that made me wonder if he was flubbing his own lines (specifically three and a half minutes in when his character Jeff arrives home and he informs his wife that Jenny’s plane has landed and she is in a cab). The net result of that style (which makes it sound like many of the lines are ad libs) is that the short film ends up feeling interminably long.

Jeff and his wife Kelly live in modern day Chicago with their baby boy, who Kelly is raising in such a way that she barely finds time in her day to day to write, which is her passion. Jeff’s younger sister, Jenny, has broken up with her latest boyfriend and decided to possibly move to Chicago, so she comes to stay with Jeff and Kelly. On her first night in the house, Jenny ducks out to hang out with her friend Carson. They go to a party where Jenny gets black-out drunk and falls asleep on the hostess’s bed, which leads Carson to call Jeff for help in getting Jenny home.

Convinced by Jeff to give Jenny a second chance, Kelly goes out for a day while Jenny watches Jude. When she returns home, she finds Carson hanging out in the house’s basement bar with Jenny and the three sit together for a drink and conversation. Over the course of the conversation, Kelly comes to realize how much she misses her writing and how little enthusiasm she has for being a stay at home mother. While Kelly works to change her relationship with Jeff to get more out of it for herself, Jenny hangs out with Jude’s babysitter, Kevin, and uses him for weed and whiskey. When Jeff gives Kelly some office space to use, Jenny pitches that she write a trashy romance novel in order to make money and they begin to bond.

The initial impression that Happy Christmas might not actually have had a script continues throughout the film. The party scene, the little moments between characters as they meet or react to their surroundings, virtually every incident in the film is presented in such a way that it feels like every member of the cast was given the script seconds before they shot the scene or that there was no script. The odd feeling that the film was shot in one take extends to the editing. When Kevin is playing with the baby, there is a line “. . . we should do that again” that sounds more like actor Mark Webber was requesting another take than it is an organic line from the babysitter asking the child to repeat an action!

Happy Christmas is further hampered in no small part by the film’s direction. Swanson seems to lack ambition for telling a story visually and while Happy Christmas might have worked fine as a stage play, on screen it is noticeably off-putting in its visual style. Early in the movie, Jenny, Kelly, and Jeff sit watching the baby struggle for an inordinate amount of time to use his fork to feed himself. The shot is framed with all four characters in frame at enough of a distance and at such an angle that the baby’s movements are virtually impossible to see. As a result, the viewer is stuck watching people watch a baby. Were I a parent who spent the money to see Happy Christmas in a theater and paid for a babysitter, I’d be pissed at how long Swanberg wasted my time and money with such a shot!

Much of Happy Christmas focuses on Jenny and Jenny might well be Anna Kendrick’s least likable character ever. Kendrick plays her with an unconvincing quality that makes the viewer instantly believe that she is a user and not taking refuge at her brother’s house because of how terrible Jenny’s last break-up actually was. In fact, Kendrick plays Jenny with so little emotion that had the dialogue not explained why Jenny was coming to stay with her brother, it would not have been clear at all. Perhaps as importantly, her relationship with Kevin is so forced and passionless that the connection they have seems more like a function of “this is how many people we cast and who we cast, so they were bound to hook up.”

Dreary and poorly presented, Happy Christmas is an independent film that I stopped caring about so long before it was over that it was hard to maintain interest in analyzing the movie. Swanberg’s direction is so off-putting and the performers are so awkward in their roles that the movie is unpleasant to watch. Most of the movie comes at such a distance – like the dice game Jenny and Kevin play has the pair referencing what is on the dice without it being seen or the toys they are discussing being kept out of frame – that Happy Christmas is hard to watch. Anna Kendrick uses the word “like” about a hundred times in the flick and whenever the film hits a fallow patch, Swanberg fills with footage of Jeff spending time watching Jude.

Perhaps the only redeeming moments of Happy Christmas come from Melanie Lynskey’s performance. Lynskey plays Kelly and she presents most of her lines convincingly enough. Lena Dunham is not horrible as Carson, though she and Kendrick play off each other so poorly that there is no clear emotional connection between their characters. But the redeeming moments are drowned out by a soundtrack that features works that are remarkably similar to one another and does little to lessen the agonizing experience that is watching Happy Christmas.

For other works with Anna Kendrick, be sure to check out my reviews of:
The Last Five Years
The Voices
Pitch Perfect
What To Expect When You're Expecting
Breaking Dawn, Part 1
New Moon


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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