Filmmaker Mike Leigh's biography of the landscape painter J.M.W. Turner is what critics call "austere"—which means it's slow and grim and deliberately hard to love—yet…
Jenny, an attractive 20-something woman whose middle name might as well be trouble, moves in with her Chicago-based gainfully employed brother, Jeff, his stay-at-home novelist wife, Kelly, and their delightful dumpling of a 2-year-old son after breaking up with her boyfriend. She bunks in their basement, whose ‘60s-style thatch-happy Polynesian décor is a dumpier version of Disney’s Tiki Room attraction. It’s a hipster’s dream and anyone else’s nightmare.
Upstairs, it is painfully clear this couple in their 30s are burdened by the weight of domestic drudgery. They have misplaced their youthful spark and suppressed their romantic urges. Downstairs, a well-stocked vintage bar beckons the new inhabitant, who likes to party to the point of blackouts. Add the fact that the child’s male baby sitter is a pot dealer and a member of a noise band (whatever that is but it can’t be a good thing), who is attracted to feckless Jenny and you can probably guess much of what happens during the course of “Happy Christmas,” including an omnipresent holiday tree.
One glance at the static camerawork that plagues the entirety of “Happy Christmas” and you might also discern that this is a minimalist mumblecore production, a kitchen-sink-style indie genre that apparently outlaws long shots or close-ups. Another hint: It is directed by Joe Swanberg, a mainstay of mumble-dom who also plays Jeff.
There is an upside to this particular Swanberg opus. Almost nearly a decade after his filmmaking debut, he has done well enough with his improvised small-budget dramadies—he helped Greta Gerwig break into the non-mumbling mainstream—to attract name-brand talent. He at least exhibits the good taste to bring together Anna Kendrick (who also appeared in Swanberg’s "Drinking Buddies" last year and is always pitch-perfect in my book) as Jenny; the too-long under-the-radar Melanie Lynskey (the New Zealand actress who deserved the same kind of breakout that co-star Kate Winslet enjoyed after their debuts in 1994’s "Heavenly Creatures") as Kelly; and Lena Dunham as Carson, Jenny’s more level-headed friend who is a less abrasively assertive twist on Dunham’s Hannah on TV’s "Girls."
The core inter-generational conflict of lifestyles isn’t unlike a knock-off of "Neighbors" minus the prank-filled feuding. Much as that comedy allowed room for Rose Byrne to swagger her stuff, Swanberg is smart enough to let female interaction be the driving force behind "Happy Christmas."
It might take a while for Jenny and Kelly to connect on any level, but once they do, the movie lights up like Rudolph’s nose. Kelly bolsters Jenny’s confidence by dropping her guard and offering her acceptance. Jenny, meanwhile, is intuitive enough to know that Kelly is frustrated by not having the time to write and suggests she tries penning a quickie erotic bodice-ripper to make some easy money.
The scene where the three women combine forces to invent a seduction scene where the novel’s heroine imagines losing her virginity is a corker, filled with revealing frankness that is (maybe) worth the price of admission. Swanberg clearly knows the naturalistic give-and-take among this perceptive trio is pure gold tinsel. So much so, there is even a reprise of the segment done with additional material during the end credits.
Also pulling his weight is Jude, Swanberg’s real-life son, as Kelly and Jeff’s toddler. This chubby charmer doesn’t need to chew the scenery to please. All he has to do is to shove fistfuls of Cheerios into his mouth to elicit smiles.
If you are averse to shambling plots that go out of their way to avoid tying everything up with a tidy emotional bow, then this title is not for you. But for those who find the weekly arrival of another new CG-engorged blockbuster at this time of year to be the cinematic equal of a re-gifted pair of socks, they might enjoy the modest if shaggy pleasures of this slice of Christmas in July.
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