You finish watching Happy Christmas wishing it were better — fuller, funnier, deeper — because there are so many good things in it. It’s a sketch, though. A sketch that’s a fine addition to so-called “mumblecore” writer-director Joe Swanberg’s list of films (LOL, Hannah Takes the Stairs, last year’s terrific Drinking Buddies). But it’s just a pleasant piece of not-very-much. Which is weird, because there’s a lot, potentially, going on in it.
An immediate litmus test for viewers happens when Lena Dunham’s name appears in the opening credits. Fans or foes of her HBO series Girls should equally relax. She plays only a small supporting role: Carson, the friend of Jenny (Anna Kendrick), who, following a breakup, comes to crash at Christmastime with her brother Jeff (Swanberg), his wife, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), and their toddler son.
It’s Carson that Jenny hangs out with on her first night at Jeff’s house. The two women go to a friend’s party, where Jenny gets passed-out wasted — and Jeff has to drive over, woken from sound sleep, to literally drag her home. So let’s name this drinking situation “Babar,” as in, the biggest elephant in the room. The movie even lets Kelly treat it that way, questioning if her sister-in-law is the best influence to have hanging around a young child. (Her concern is so pointed, you almost think she’s the one who has a problem — that of being overly judgmental.)
The issue recedes, though. Jenny straightens up, flirts with the scruffy occasional babysitter, Kevin (Mark Webber), and becomes a cheerleader when Kelly, a blocked novelist with one book published, starts spending time at an office away from home, trying to concentrate on her writing. When Jenny starts hanging out at that office, trying to give Kelly ideas for writing a best-selling, Fifty Shades of Grey-ish erotic page turner, it seems certain that Kelly will inevitably explode at the unwanted advice. Instead, Happy Christmas take a surprisingly different path and becomes an interesting, funny sketch of in-law friendship.
But there’s that word again, sketch. What distinguishes Christmas but proves to be its main flaw is that Swanberg doesn’t want to meet our dramatic expectations. The movie introduces complex and promising situations, only to tiptoe away from them once they’ve been established. Jenny’s drinking problem shows up again in a big way during the final minutes, but instead of resulting in a dramatic crisis or resolution, the issue is sort of shrugged off in the dramatic equivalent of a group hug.
Swanberg has a smart eye and ear for the way average people live and talk, and the fine, always watchable actors interact smoothly. But in avoiding clichés and confrontations, the movie comes to feel totally risk-averse. It doesn’t want to court any sort of judgment or strong reactions, but seems determined to earn a gold, stick-on star for being Perfectly Nice. Which, from my perspective = Fail.
Happy Christmas. With Joe Swanberg, Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey. Written and directed by Swanberg. Rated R. 88 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.