Halloween has come and gone, and Thanksgiving is on the horizon. And with Thanksgiving comes the holiday movie season, specifically the Hallmark Christmas movie season. The thing about Hallmark movies is that they lean into the fact that they’re Hallmark movies — actors who kind-of-sort-of look like that one big A-list star and a plot that’s far from Oscar-worthy but still comforting. These aren’t bad things, they’re just what to expect from a Hallmark Christmas movie. In the end, it doesn’t really matter if they’re good because more often than not they’re only playing in the background of a fun holiday cookie baking party. And “Last Christmas,” Universal’s newest Christmas movie, is exactly that, but with none of the Hallmark Christmas charm.
Starring Emilia Clarke (“Me Before You”) as Kate and Henry Golding (“Crazy Rich Asians”) as Tom, “Last Christmas” follows the pair as Kate falls in love with the aloof and seemingly perfect Tom. A classic series of meet-cutes populates the first 20 minutes of the film, highlighting Kate’s whiny self-centered nature, while Golding continues to play the typical, debonair, two-dimensional hunk. Emma Thompson (“Love Actually”) stars as Kate’s mother and Michelle Yeoh (“Crazy Rich Asians”) as her boss. Tragically, though, the two mother figures in Kate’s life never interact until the final scene of the movie, where they’re simply in the same room.
The movie had the potential to be similar to “Love Actually” with its large cast of stars and intertwining storylines. But instead, “Last Christmas” focuses on the budding relationship between Clarke and Golding. And though the two are cute, there is none of that tension that comes with falling in love during a two-week period because of pressure from the constant attention of friends and family. The relationships that actually show potential for a movie are cast off to the side, like Kate’s parents. From the beginning, it seems as if they’re on the rocks and somehow, through some Christmas magic, they reconnect to sing a Yugoslavian folk song. The film treats Kate’s sister in a similar manner: It becomes clear that she has been hiding her sexuality from her parents for years, and, despite being an obvious way to connect with an audience, the relationship is pushed to the side to focus on the flimsy relationship between Tom and Kate. Even the random policewomen have a more interesting connection than the title couple.
Some might argue that the two aren’t meant to have chemistry, that it’s all part of the story’s grand plan to help Kate find herself. But that doesn’t mean the two characters need to seem like complete strangers throughout the whole movie. Though they eventually pour their hearts out to each other, the emotional connection seems seemingly out of left field. There was little to no context for the friendship, let alone the relationship. At least with Hallmark movies, even if the actual situation seems unrealistic, the characters spend significant periods of time together fighting over the future of a small-town bookstore.
A holiday film isn’t complete without a cynical title character finally realizing that whatever material gain they’re chasing isn’t worth it if they miss the joys of life. They’re imbued with the magic of the Christmas spirit and “Last Christmas” is no different. In the span of two hours, Kate transforms from a lackluster Christmas cynic into the giving, generous spirit we all have inside. She realizes that the trauma from her heart condition the year previous, a plot point that is hardly explored, isn’t worth torturing her boss or her family over. She becomes a picture-perfect daughter, friend and employee.
Obviously, the holidays are a stressful time for everyone — family is visiting, hams are in the oven and I’m still in the process of convincing my parents to let me sit at the kids’ table to avoid small talk about my future. The only real constants during these supposedly cheery winter months are the endearing qualities of romantic Christmas movies, and if you don’t make the time to see “Last Christmas,” there’s always next year.