Film Review: Happy Christmas

Joe Swanberg's latest feature is a collection of strong individual scenes and performances that never quite finds its statement of purpose.

Like so many indie film movements, mumblecore burned brightly for a few years (specifically from about 2002 to 2008) before fading out, its various adherents scattering to the cinematic winds. Some entered the studio world (like Greta Gerwig and filmmaking team Jay and Mark Duplass, the latter of whom also has a steady career as an actor), others decamped for television (such as Lena Dunham and, to a lesser extent, Lynn Shelton, who has helmed episodes of “New Girl” and “Mad Men” in between features) and still others have ventured down even more rarefied avenues (take mumblecore "founder" Andrew Bujalski, whose third feature Computer Chess seemed to have been made for an audience of maybe 500, all of whom loved it). But Chicago native Joe Swanberg is still slugging it out in the trenches, churning out the same small-scale, heavily improvised slice-of-life portraits at the same rapid pace as he did back in mumblecore's heyday.

The one thing that has changed for Swanberg recently is the earning power of his various casts. For his 14th feature, 2013's Drinking Buddies, he traded in his usual assortment of no-name or little-name actors and actresses for a star-packed lineup that included Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston and Jason Sudeikis. And while that change could be dismissed as a purely commercial calculation, it also significantly impacted the overall artistry of the film for the better. Wilde came into Drinking Buddies boasting A-list charisma but not much in the way of indie cred, and flourished in front of Swanberg's typically handheld camera, turning that film's beer-swilling heroine Kate into a fascinating, complicated figure. She was matched scene-for-scene by her quasi-love interest Johnson and the duo's "They will! No…wait, they won't" chemistry provided the film with a strong emotional anchor as well as an engine for genuine tension. With Kendrick and Livingston providing valuable (if less surprising) supporting work as well, Drinking Buddies wasn't only the writer-director's highest-profile film to date—it also felt like his most complete creative vision.

Swanberg continues to cast up for his latest film, Happy Christmas, which gives returning champ Kendrick the chance to inhabit the spotlight that shone on Wilde the last time around and surrounds her with Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber and—in a small role filmed during a rare break from “Girls”—Dunham. These pros take Swanberg's deliberately thinly sketched scenario and run with it, striving to find rich dramatic beats and deeper layers of meaning in even the simplest scene. Despite their efforts, though, the movie lacks some of the clear, concise focus of Drinking Buddies; instead, it offers two narratives running along parallel tracks, but only one of them arrives at a halfway satisfying destination.

Shedding her persona as the well-meaning if tightly wound girl-next-door, Kendrick assumes the role of Jenny, a directionless college grad in her mid-20s who returns to her Chicago stomping grounds after a bout of boy trouble. In need of a place to live, she moves in with her older brother Jeff (Swanberg), his wife Kelly (Lynskey) and their two-year-old son under the vague pretense that she'll serve as a part-time babysitter while Kelly attends to other things, like reviving her career as a novelist. But then Jenny hits the town with her buddy Carson (Dunham) the first night back and winds up sprawled on the floor of a stranger's apartment in a drunken stupor, an incident that casts a pall over her suitability as a caretaker.

To make matters worse, she strikes up a romance with the one reliable sitter her brother's family has—kindly pot dealer Kevin (Webber). Kelly urges her husband to confront his sibling about her behavior, but he demurs, hoping—but not really believing—that it's just a phase she has to pass through on her own. Then Jenny goes and surprises everyone, especially Kelly, by befriending the frustrated writer, successfully prodding her into opening up about the toll marriage and motherhood have taken on her literary ambitions and even planting the seed for her next book. Too bad this detente won't last, as Jenny's natural inclination for screw-ups inevitably reasserts itself once again.

One could make the case that Jenny isn't that far removed from Drinking Buddies' Kate in terms of how both women seem caught in a recursive loop of poor decision-making. But Kate's particular pathology was at least rooted in something specific—a fear of commitment as well as a failure of nerve—that gave Wilde a place to start from. It's harder to get a read on the source of Jenny's troubles and while Kendrick doesn't need to be walking around wearing a signboard that states "This Is Why I'm Screwed Up," the actress struggles to find a way into a character whose problems seem more severe than the movie ultimately treats them. (Though everyone seems to agree that her drunken binges are an issue, they seem all too willing to dismiss them as "Jenny being Jenny" instead of trying to help her in any substantive way.)

It's Lynskey who contributes the sharpest character work to the film, delivering a more dramatic variation on the reluctant mother figure that was prominently featured in one of this summer's biggest hits, Neighbors, played there by Rose Byrne. (Like the Australia-born Byrne, Lynskey is allowed to retain her natural Kiwi accent for the part.) Kelly loves her son, her husband and the life they're all building together, and yet the personal sacrifices that come with parenthood—sacrifices that Jeff hasn't really had to make—are weighing heavily on her mind. Swanberg's low-key directorial style and Lynskey's thoughtful performance deftly sidestep the kind of melodramatic outbursts you might expect from this kind of story arc, zeroing in instead on the everyday moments of frustration as well as the small but all-important acts of consideration that come with being a working parent. Happy Christmas is really Lynskey's movie—Kendrick and the other actors are just passing through.

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