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Review: Joe Swanberg's 'Happy Christmas' does its best to deal with cliches, so-so improv

Filmmaker Joe Swanberg finds himself returning to the world of name cast indies with "Happy Christmas," starring Anna Kendrick and Melanie Lynskey.

Lena Dunham and Anna Kendrick (plus kid) ring in the holidays with "Happy Christmas." Credit: Magnolia Pictures Lena Dunham and Anna Kendrick (plus kid) ring in the holidays with "Happy Christmas."
Credit: Magnolia Pictures

‘Happy Christmas’
Director: Joe Swanberg
Stars: Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey
Rating: R
2 Globes

For ages, Joe Swanberg was one of the last hold-outs from the group not always accurately dubbed “mumblecore.” Some (Greta Gerwig, the Duplass Brothers) went big, others (Andrew Bujalski) went experimental. But Swanberg has stayed Swanberg, prolifically cranking out tiny, intimate, largely improvised and formally experimental works like “Alexander the Last,” “Art School” and “All the Light in the Sky.” Then came last year’s “Drinking Buddies,” which found him going the micro-budget equivalent of electric. Suddenly he had a tripod, name stars (Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick) and a clean, three-act narrative.

But not so fast: A closer inspection saw that it still boasted a lot of the experimentation and interest in human interaction that marks the rest of his work, even as it was more open to embracing certain American indie cliches. The same goes for “Happy Christmas,” which reunites him with Kendrick, tripods and plot points smashed together in montages set to indie rock. The actress plays Jenny, a rootless 20-something who, following a break-up, crashes at the home of her brother Jeff (Swanberg), his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and their child (Swanberg’s own).

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Anna Kendrick returns to the films of Joe Swanberg with "Happy Christmas." Credit: Magnolia Pictures Anna Kendrick returns to the films of Joe Swanberg with "Happy Christmas."
Credit: Magnolia Pictures

Jenny is a cliche: the force of nature who both ruins the lives of her loved ones and brings them together. But Kendrick comes at her from a fresh angle. With her good looks and clean dress, she seems together until you get to know her. That makes her epic barrage of muck-ups all the more unexpected, and you quickly get the sense that everyone who knows her — including a longtime friend played by Lena Dunham — have gotten used to her issues, even if they’ve never completely come to tolerate it.

There are many fine actors in “Happy Christmas,” not just Kendrick but Lynskey. But they're mostly adrift, under-motivated. The exception is Dunham, who kicks things into gear a few times as Jenny's absurdly tolerant friend. Nearly all of the improv feels merely so-so. They convey information and stray bits of characterization but ooze little inspiration when it comes to dialogue. Even with a strong narrative structure, they feel like real people, but little of what they say is interesting. Even when the three female characters decide to collaborate on an erotic novel, the film seems to be spinning its wheels.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
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