Review: “Happy Christmas”

More than most, director Joe Swanberg often succeeds by getting out of the way of his actors and it fittingly suits his unique filmmaking style. In last year’s enjoyable “Drinking Buddies,” this was especially easy. The cast that included Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston carried the film above and beyond his natural vision. While the “Happy Christmas” cast isn’t as marquee (though it brings Kendrick back and adds Lena Dunham), it captures the same effect and further cements his talent as an actor’s director.

Kendrick plays Jenny, a recently brokenhearted girl in her late 20s moving to Chicago. Her brother Jeff (Swanberg) and wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) let her temporarily move into their 1950s tiki bar basement, only to realize how much her life is spiraling out of control. While the film fronts as Jenny’s story, it’s also about empowering Kelly, a stay-at-home mom who’s trying to write her second novel and find her misplaced creative gene. Jenny and old friend Carson (a fantastic name for Dunham’s character) help her do that and together they pen an erotic novel. It wasn’t Kelly’s initial intention, but what gets your creative juices flowing better than making up sexual fantasies about princes and princesses, all the while posing questions about femininity and what to call a vagina? Nothing.

Swanberg’s Jeff is merely a working husband and loving father who only gets about two moments in the film — both ironically involving smoke of some kind. Otherwise, the director lets his ladies take the lead. And it’s awesome. Long, fluid conversations between Kelly, Jenny and Carson about literature and women steal the film and make it memorable. Their chemistry is so real, and I could watch them chat for uncut hours on end. (Note: if you stay after the credits, you can watch a little bit more). Most of what Dunham’s character says during these talks is ironic because of who she is, the creator of Girls and writer of a memoir (coming in late September) about her sexual and other adventures. Carson can’t imagine writing a novel, but when it comes to erotic novels, she might know everything there is to know.

It’s heartwarming how humble Kelly seems, while Carson is obsessed with the wife’s beauty and Jenny envies her maturity. The truth is, they all need a little bit of each other. Lynskey’s performance is surprisingly excellent given her powerful co-stars Kendrick and Dunham. For the most part, she holds her own.

Unfortunately, Swanberg’s choice of an ending is relatively soft, coming off like he just ran out of time. It exits almost as soon as it arrives. The bar I expected it so be at aligned with “Drinking Buddies,” which had a excellent, poignant ending that followed its best scenes stacked back-to-back. The climax in “Happy Christmas” was right, but it’s ending promised more. Maybe it was doomed because Swanberg buried Kendrick’s biggest mishap too close to the end. Like the Kelly’s erotic novel, “Happy Christmas” seems unfinished at the end.

There, he could’ve done better, but “Happy Christmas” is no less another successful Swanberg flick.

“Happy Christmas”: ★★1/2

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