Of the many kinds of adaptations out there, be it comic or best-selling novel, it’s hard to get around the adaptation of a song. That’s Last Christmas, director Paul Feig’s newest romantic comedy that “adapts” George Michael’s infectious, inescapable holiday mega-hit, with a comically predictable twist that virtually the entire internet nailed as soon as the trailer debuted.
Here’s the thing, though. Like the song, though Last Christmas is very often both contrived and saccharine, it has the same cozy tenderness as a quilted blanket. Its “twist,” surely a cheap ploy to make the movie worth more than just other disposable meet-cutes, is a wholly vital component. Yeah, it’s silly, but there’s nothing wrong with a movie just being fun to watch. To dismiss it means missing out on everything there is to gain from its earnest spirit.
In theaters now, Last Christmas stars Emilia Clarke, the Mother of Dragons, as Kate, a messy, selfish Londoner failing to find success as a singer. Months after life-saving surgery, Kate stumbles through life in a daze wearing elf shoes. In between bombing auditions, she makes minimum wage in a year-round Christmas shop employed by “Santa” (Michelle Yeoh, unsure whether to play Scrooge before or after the three ghosts). When Kate meets a handsome stranger, Tom (Henry Golding), a whirlwind romance begins, until it doesn’t.
The film notably features Dame Emma Thompson as Kate’s immigrant mother (a vehicle for the film’s most out-there element, a recurring Brexit thread). Thompson co-wrote the script alongside Bryony Kimmings.
Look, I’m not even going to put a spoiler warning here, because you know the twist: Yes, Tom is dead. Kate’s surgery gave her his heart (get it?), and when Kate started to lose grip on life, Tom comes to her, beige coat and wide smile, to reassure her that life is indeed worth living.
Come for the cheesy twist, stay for the rock-solid proof that Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding are weapons-grade romantic leads. Despite how much Last Christmas shouldn’t work as a movie in theory, it’s the white-hot appeal of Clarke, who sheds her vengeful HBO queen to become a millennial mess, and Golding, a Banana Republic mannequin imbued with impossible levels of charm, who keep the movie’s holiday spirit up the whole way. That the movie is also a 90-minute George Michael Spotify playlist given form is a sweet bonus.
There’s magic in Last Christmas, in part because there’s magic in the song itself. It’s been played to death since it was released decades ago, but in the winter of 1984, it was just words on paper that 21-year-old George Michael, then on the rocket ship that was Wham!, wrote in his childhood bedroom in London.
A four minute, 27-second piece of dynamite, its relentless play has never quite ruined its inherent goodness: a chocolate and peanut butter blend of upbeat melodies and melancholy unrequited love. Who hasn’t been just a little lonely on the holidays? Andrew Ridgeley, Michael’s partner in Wham!, would recall in 2017: “When he came back down, such was his excitement, it was as if he had discovered gold which, in a sense, he had.”
No matter how often you’ve heard “Last Christmas,” there’s a part of you that can’t turn the radio off. That’s where the movie thrives. No matter how much you think you’ve seen this movie before, and you have, its original pieces — Clarke and Golding, the inescapable presence of George Michael — still conjure warm feelings that assure you there’s safety in comfort.
In a time when cineplexes offer the same multi-million blockbusters, streaming giants court ancient auteurs, and all the best indie movies dwell in abject misery, there’s little room for a mid-range, mid-budget rom-com that is wholeheartedly more plastic than the dozens of superhero tentpoles pushing action figures. Last Christmas won’t change the world, but it can comfort a weary soul. You just can’t hate this movie. It wears its heart on its sleeve, and Clarke and Golding could be this generation’s Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks if anyone wants to sneak a better script in their stockings next year.
Last Christmas is in theaters now.