There are people who claim, not unconvincingly, that Wham!’s perennial earworm “Last Christmas” is only nominally a Christmas song (Lifehacker’s Nick Douglas called it the Die Hard of Christmas songs in a 2017 post). I’d argue that the insistent sleighbells and theme of manipulating people through gift-giving is, in fact, very pertinent to the holiday, but otherwise, I can concede that it is very much a love song whose yuletide framework could be interpreted as circumstantial. It is equally appropriate and regrettable that Paul Feig’s Last Christmas, which was named after the song, is barely a Christmas movie. Yes, it takes place at Christmastime, it’s largely set in a Christmas store, and its protagonist learns a remedial lesson about the soul-warming effect of helping others, but that’s all backdrop to a rather chaste and saccharine love story with superficial subplots concerning Brexit and queer coming out that could take place at any time of year and still go down like curdled eggnog.
The movie is also a lazy tribute to George Michael, featuring several of his songs during montages and transitional scenes, where generic Christmas music might blare in a more Christmassy Christmas movie. It includes hits like “Everything She Wants” and “Faith,” and deep cuts like “Fantasy” and “Heal the Pain.” “Last Christmas” itself plays some half dozen times in various iterations, mostly via electronic toys and a band of homeless people. For the sake of the narrative, Michael’s music works to underscore the fandom of protagonist Kate (Emilia Clarke), who compares her life to that of Michael’s in an early scene. No, it’s not because her face produces a gorgeous five o’clock shadow. It’s not because she rocks a leather jacket and butt-hugging jeans combo like a second skin. It’s certainly, and most disappointingly, not because she enjoys cruising for sex and masturbating in public bathrooms. It’s because, as she explains to a stranger in a bar, both she and Michael are “famously misunderstood and under-appreciated in our time.”
Even this embarrassingly spare distillation of Michael’s legacy in a movie ostensibly devoted to paying tribute to it manages to be inaccurate. Michael was a terrifically successful singer-songwriter throughout the ’90s, especially in his homeland of England, where Last Christmas is set. Later, the couch-surfing Kate returns to her parents’ house and childhood bedroom, where her walls contain no fewer than three posters of Micheal, though they all appear to be from the Faith era. Pfft, that was his most successful era, globally. Some diehard!
Christmas and George Michael are grafted onto a rather inert love story between Kate and Tom (Henry Golding), who meet outside the Christmas shop where Kate seems to be the only employee besides her borderline abusive boss, Santa, played by Michelle Yeoh. (Clearly, Yeoh being on the same screen as Golding gives us the yuletide Crazy Rich Asians reunion we need right now.) Kate is the kind of 26-year-old fuck-up with smeared eyeliner and blonde roots that movies make examples out of, transforming them into respectable young ladies. She fucks sometimes and gets drunk—what a trainwreck! An alternate title for Last Christmas could have been Humbugbag. Tom is unfailingly kind, with a real mind for civic duty (he volunteers in a homeless shelter) and keen knowledge of the life story of every single person who visits the park he frequents. How godlike! To hear Kate, who is prone to pratfalls into garbage piles and pondering why her life is so shitty, Tom is “always dancing about” and also “slightly serial killery.” She’s such a card! Clearly, they’re a great match, with him bringing a sense of responsibility and selflessness to irresponsible and selfish Kate and Kate meanwhile... uh... sorry, they’re not a very good match, I guess. But love is nice and it’s Christmas, so.
Clearly, there is something going on with Tom—something that the movie will take forever to reveal, but will reveal it nonetheless, as sure as chestnuts roast on open fires and sugarplums dance in heads. But there’s more to it than one might expect. I will tell you this: when the twist was finally revealed, I whooped. It filled me with cheer. It wasn’t Christmas cheer, per se, but you know what? Close enough. It made me feel like I hadn’t just wasted about 90 minutes of my life on something that Hallmark Network execs would have sent back for extensive rewrites to make it more specific and less corny. Will you see this movie? If so and if you aren’t yet aware of what Last Christmas is up to via other reviews, I recommend not reading further so as not to spoil this morsel of joy in an otherwise cruel world and crappy movie. Everyone else can look below for spoilers.
In the great tradition of The Sixth Sense, Large Marge in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and countless other pop culture examples, Tom has been dead all along, unbeknownst to Kate. But he isn’t just dead—he’s a dead donor. Last Christmas, you see, Tom died in a car accident and wouldn’t you know, Kate received a heart transplant. The heart was Tom’s. Last Christmas, he gave her his heart. The very next day she did not give it away, so this deliriously literal interpretation of George Michael’s words is confined only to the first two lines of the “Last Christmas” chorus, but hey, there’s always the possibility of a sequel. My Christmas wish is for this movie to spawn an anthology franchise in which a new person gets the nice man’s heart every Christmas and learns the power of blank benevolence while the last person who just had it dies.
You may be surprised to learn that the literal giving of a heart is not the dumbest thing about “Last Christmas.” That would probably be the Brexit storyline that teaches us why it’s not nice to be hateful to immigrants. This part is mostly centered on the experience of Petra, Kate’s Yugoslavian mother who’s played by Emma Thompson. Thompson goes full Yugoslavian, accent and all, and, hilariously, she imposed it all upon herself—she’s one of the screenwriters! To argue why discriminating against immigrants is bad, Thompson, a non-Yugoslavian, plays a Yugoslavian. It’s almost like... no one has any idea what they’re doing at all and just praying that the association with a classic Christmas pop song will pull them through. It doesn’t. The movie would be merely some treacle with a lovely bow on it in the shape of its twist, were it not for the fact that this movie obviously never would have been made were it not for the untimely death of George Michael in 2016. George Michael had to die so Last Christmas could live. Something tells me that these terms weren’t included on his donor card.