In the past couple of years, it seems we‘ve all admitted that those made-for-cable holiday movies starring D-list celebs were actually pretty fun to watch. Since then they’ve only exploded in popularity, drawing more and more stars, with the networks expanding their seasonal offerings well into autumn. Christmas movies aren’t just a guilty pleasure anymore, they’re a bona fide booming mini-industry. While Hollywood studios annually release a family holiday movie or two in the vein of “The Family Stone” or “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” Emma Thompson and Paul Feig’s holiday rom-com “Last Christmas” feels much more in tune with the Hallmark or Lifetime approach — but with higher-profile stars and a much bigger music budget.
Inspired by that delightfully cheesy ’80s Christmas tune “Last Christmas” by Wham! the film becomes a bit of a jukebox musical for George Michael’s greatest hits, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that (in fact, there better be a George Michael musical biopic in the works like “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Rocketman”). The screenplay, by Thompson and Bryony Kimmings, from a story by Thompson and Greg Wise, plugs a literal reading of the song into a “Bridget Jones”-style story with a light Brexit dusting for topicality.
Arguably two of the biggest stars of the moment, Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding, are Kate and Tom, who meet by chance outside the Christmas shop where Kate, dressed in an elf costume, is working. Imagine if Will Ferrell’s “Elf” was having a “Bad Santa” day and you’ll get a sense of Kate’s downward spiraling lifestyle: dragging a rolling suitcase from couch to couch, drinking alone in pubs, drowning her sorrows in full pints and one-night stands. She’s recovering from a near-death experience, she tells Tom, and she hasn’t felt like her sunny self since she “came back.”
Tom, on the other hand, is whimsical and mysterious. He finds the joy in the little things, spinning and skipping down the street, exhorting Kate to always “look up.” It’s a way to catch little bits of magic in the world. But it inspires Kate to have awareness of the things around her, in her community, to have a little faith, feel a little gratitude. Of course, they start to fall in something like love, or so Kate thinks.
Kate and Tom are slightly maddening in their extreme quirks for the first half of the film. Kate, in her smeared mascara and leopard coat, has a bratty attitude and can’t get her life together. And Tom is just a little too Pollyanna-perfect. But that leaves them room to grow and change. And thankfully, they do.
Director Feig has built an interesting body of work, and while “Last Christmas” feels much more like a Thompson film than a Feig film (rapidly wordy, delightfully goofy), he brings a swift bounciness to the material. And he surrounds Clarke and Golding with charming supporting performances from Thompson as Kate’s Yugoslavian mother and Michelle Yeoh, a surprisingly adept comic performer, as Santa, Kate’s stern boss.
While it feels only slightly more elevated than your standard TV holiday rom-com fare, with a twist that can be seen coming from a mile away, it’s the performances and well-earned character arcs that make “Last Christmas” a satisfying holiday flick worth giving your heart to.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: In general release