Thursday, July 24, 2014

Mumbling Grown-Ups: "Happy Christmas" plays more like mundane life than interesting cinema

Happy Christmas (2014) 
78 min., rated R.

By now, the term "mumblecore" is almost as extinct as the dinosaurs, but director Joe Swanberg now has more than enough clout for being a prolific (and very busy) figure in that movement of heavily improvised, micro-budget films riding on naturalism. Though keeping with the fly-on-the-wall aesthetic, he showed a great deal of maturity with last year's "Drinking Buddies," a life-like, appealingly low-key romantic dramedy about friendship boundaries and drinking that never once felt artificial with recognizable actors but was always interesting to watch. Swanberg's latest, however, walks and talks like mumblecore. That isn't meant to be completely derogatory or reductive, as such a teensy film favorably holds characters and their relationships over pushy plotting, but "Happy Christmas" falls into the trap of what this reviewer was afraid would eventually happen. Reliably observant and unforced as it is, the film is also a frustrating paradox: it begins agreeably, eventually grows tedious and then ends pointlessly. Maybe that's just like life, but we are still watching a movie.

Chicago couple Jeff (Joe Swanberg) and Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) are mostly content with their 2-year-old son Jude (Jude Swanberg). He tries bringing home the bacon, working for a small film production company, while she put her writing career on hold to make "stay-at-home mom" her full-time job. Around the holiday season, Jeff's 27-year-old sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick), reeling from a break-up, flies to the Windy City to live indefinitely in her older brother and his wife's basement until she gets back on her feet. On her first night with Jeff and Kelly, Jenny goes out with her friend Carson (Lena Dunham) and gets drunk at a party. She ends up passing out at the party host's apartment, leaving Carson to have to call Jeff. As Jenny gets involved with pot-dealing musician Kevin (Mark Webber), who babysits Jude the morning a hungover Jenny was supposed to, how long will it be before she can get her act together? Can the houseguest bring balance to Jeff and Kelly's life, too?

To call "Happy Christmas" plotless would be unfair to what Joe Swanberg's filmmaking style represents and sets out to do. Directed by Swanberg but sketched in by his actors improvising on the fly, the film is a casual, gentle, albeit uncoddled, snapshot of human lives and interactions that (at least) wants to be a complimentary study of an irresponsible and immature twentysomething, siblings and young parenthood. In doing so, it does penetrate some truths, but it feels less like a movie and more like a rough treatment of one Lena Dunham's "Tiny Furniture" and Noah Baumbach's Greta Gerwig-fronted "Frances Ha" more easily got over this hump. Too bad the viewer walks away not really learning too much and being handed little more than a shrug to take away. Because "Happy Christmas" feels so loose, unglossy and raggedly real (read: unpolished as 78 minutes' worth of first takes) does not automatically make it a good movie. Even on a technical level, it seems like Swanberg has taken a step backwards from "Drinking Buddies," which felt shaggy but polished. Here, being shot digitally on grainy 16 mm and there being a very, very loose structure in terms of editing, jump cuts are still less than smooth during long takes and some scenes just jump to the next.

Anna Kendrick and Melanie Lynskey are both given lead duties. Even in playing Jenny as a flaky screw-up, Kendrick brings her star-quality twinkle to the role, but one wishes there were more on the page for her to work from, as the character of Jenny can be boiled down to self-obsessed and unreliable with an affinity for getting drunk and/or high. Lynskey (able to use her native New Zealand accent) is wonderfully likable as pajama-wearing housewife and mother Kelly, who wants no other Christmas gift than alone time to get some writing done. It's not shocking to discover that Lena Dunham seems the most comfortable in navigating a scene with her words and taking it somewhere, and that's most evident in a conversational scene about women's roles where Carson and Jenny have a beer with Kelly in her basement. Swanberg, himself, and Mark Webber also acquit themselves just fine, but it's the director real-life son, Jude, who adorably steals the show with his literal mumbling. 

"I feel like time is going by so slow!" utters Jenny at one point. Like a person who takes forever to get to their point, filled with entirely too much inarticulateness (pauses, "uhs," "ums" and "likes," etc.), the film is more of a mundane slice of life than interesting cinema. Between Jeff and Kelly's domestic life and Jenny's twentysomething aimlessness, there is a relatability to each character and their subtle body language is able to speak volumes without a word. Not that there needed to be much finality, there just isn't much catharsis. By the end, Kelly is nearly finished with a quick-buck, Danielle Steel-esque romance novel spitballed by both Jenny and Carson. Jenny, though, is barely a work in progress. She doesn't seem to learn from her mistakes, show sincerity, or feel apologetic for nearly burning down Jeff and Kelly's house that spending time with such a self-centered person becomes annoying. While there will always a marketplace for a lo-fi film that's driven by its characters, it is unfortunate to find an indie rendered insignificant from its major assetunscripted authenticitybecoming a major liability. And brevity is good, but the film just kind of stops at a too-short 78 minutes. The genial "Happy Christmas" is, dare it be said, that rare case where more might have actually been more.


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