Director-actor Joe Swanberg made a little movie called “Happy Christmas” and put his kid Jude in it. As a kid named Jude. Joe plays Jude’s dad, Jeff. This child might be the only reason to see this movie; a very precociously funny baby, Jude is.
Jeff does music business, and his wife, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), is a stay-at-home mom who misses being a novelist.
Along comes Jenny (Anna Kendrick), Jeff’s sister, for some basement couch surfing. Jenny just had a bad breakup.
That’s the setup for the happy little movie called “Happy Christmas.” Which is less happy than the title implies, and less good than it should be for you to want to see it.
First night on the couch, Jenny up and attends a party with former high school buddy Carson (Lena Dunham). Jenny drinks too much and blacks out—Jeff has to come get her.
The blackout and subsequent carting home of Jenny, like a sack of potatoes, starts off a whole movie’s worth of people talking (and whining) about other people while they’re not there.
Kelly maintains she and Jeff weren’t that crazy in their youth; Jeff thinks different. But now they’ve got Jude the baby, and how much irresponsible behavior are they prepared to put up with?
A fair amount, of course. Otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie. What irresponsible behavior? Like Jenny burning the house down. Almost.
Jenny displays much alcoholism, inhales many kinds of smoke, and has inappropriate hookups. Then, she lapses into a codependent relationship with Kevin (Mark Webber). Kevin is Jude’s babysitter and Jenny’s dealer of controlled substances.
But although she displays annoying signs of addict-denial, Jenny’s quite adorable. That’s because this is adorable Anna Kendrick playing her.
There are some good times, such as the girl-talk scene where Jenny convinces Kelly to have a beer with her in the basement and bond about bills, husbands, no money, no writing, wearing pajama tops all day with baby food on them, and so on.
This conversation eventually leads to Jenny’s becoming a “creativity coach” for Kelly. Jenny feels that Kelly should write a best-selling dirty novel that will instantly hit the jackpot and result in lots of free time to do some real writing. Like most non-writers, she imagines Kelly can pull this off in, say, 10 days.
But Is It Art?
Attend any Al-Anon 12-step meeting around Christmas time and you will hear many such “The alcoholic in my life” type stories.
This is Swanberg’s thing: mildly uncomfortable conversations about 20-something topics, by 20-somethings, for 20-somethings, played by Swanberg’s 20-something friends.
The uncomfortableness and humor factors are enhanced here by Lena Dunham, who manages to turn every scene she’s in into an episode of “Girls”: “I know I want a baby, but I don’t know why.”
The stock-in-trade, “Girls”-type, uncomfortable make-out scene between Jenny and Kevin would appear to be inspired by Swanberg’s having binged on a few seasons of “Girls.”
One look at the elfin Anna Kendrick is enough to be convinced that the most improbable things to manifest in her personal life would be lack of focus, lack of control around controlled substances, and confusion.
Her? A floundering, career-clueless, alcoholic, irresponsible moocher? Just no. She’s just too smart for this character, and yet she makes it work, sort of. Kendrick’s magnetic, whatever she attempts.
As art, the main thing “Happy Christmas” illuminates is the modern lack of built-in societal structure that creates a trail of stepping-stones for 20-somethings trying to cross the river of life into adulthood. All they’ve got is a morass; there are no rites-of-passage, no mores, just a long wallow in instant gratification and worry. That’s “Happy Christmas.”
Lena Dunham’s “Girls” is another such prolonged wallowing. Would someone please take it as their mission to do a whole movie on the importance of guidance by elders, and thereby reduce the existential misery of these 20-somethings? Not just their misery, of course. Movie-reviewer misery too. Thank you.
Director: Joe Swanberg
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Lena Dunham, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Release date: July 25
2 stars out of 5