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Happy Christmas (2014)

Paramount Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 11/4/2014

All Ratings out of



Extras: No Extras

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 10/28/2014

There have been times in the past where in the body of a review I would write, "I hate to nitpick...". But, that's not exactly true, is it? As a critic, it's my job to nitpick -- to point out even the smallest foible in a movie. Still, I try to be realistic when I watch a movie and there are times where I don't think that I'm asking for too much. At the very least, I want a movie to have a technically proficient look, to have competent acting, and to have a semi-coherent story. That last one may seem like a given, but there are certainly a number of movies where story takes a backseat to everything else. In arthouse movies, this is somewhat acceptable, but Happy Christmas proves that story is a necessity.

Jeff (Joe Swanberg) and Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) are a young couple who live in Chicago with their infant son, Jude (Jude Swanberg). Jeff is a filmmaker (supposedly) and Kelly is a writer, but she has put her career on hold in order to care for Jude. Following a bad breakup, Jeff's sister, Jenny (Anna Kendrick), comes to lives with Jeff and Kelly. Jenny is somewhat of a mess, as she needs to get her life together. However, she does encourage Kelly to start writing again. Jenny also finds herself attracted to Jeff's friend, Kevin (Mark Webber).

When I write a plot synopsis, I purposely try to keep things vague so as to avoid spoilers. But, with Happy Christmas, I couldn't spoil anything, because there isn't enough story to spoil. The above synopsis probably reads like something which I didn't finish writing or where I was trying very hard to keep things under wraps. But, no, that is the entire movie in a nutshell. There is no narrative flow here, no beginning/middle/end structure, and no plot twists. We've seen experimental films adopt this sort of structure before, but Happy Christmas is not an art film. It's disguised as a drama, but it's really a lot of nothing.

If I had to classify, Happy Christmas, I'd call it a "slice of life" movie, but it takes that notion to the extreme. The "slice of life" film could also be called "very realistic drama", as we are introduced to characters who clearly come from the real world and watch them deal with their lives. There are typically no extraordinary plot devices -- the people often deal mostly with relationship issues, and sometimes work or health problems creep in. At the outset, Happy Christmas looks as if it's going to fall into this category, as it does an OK job of introducing us to the characters and it makes it painfully aware that they are simply normal people. Jeff wants to be a fun dad, Kelly is a put-upon housewife and Jenny is the black sheep. The character traits and some information given actually sets up some expectations for the audience as to what may happen in the movie. And while some of these things to come to fruition, they aren't the least bit interesting. In lieu of a story, Writer/Director Joe Swanberg merely gives us scene after scene of people talking about very mundane things. In many ways, Happy Christmas looks more like a documentary or a reality show than a narrative film.

Swanberg tackled the "slice of life" movie before in his 2013 feature Drinking Buddies. (I looked back at my review for this and I actually used the term "slice of life" in the first sentence!) While that movie wasn't great, it was decent enough because it had an actual plot and some tension involving cheating spouses. There are no emotions tied to Happy Christmas, as the film never invites us in. We merely sit there watching these people talk, hoping that aliens will invade or something. The movie really reaches its nadir when Lena Dunham shows up as Jenny's friend. Her dialogue sounds very ad-libbed of it smacks of her "I'm so edgy" attitude. Her monologues, in which she cuts off other speakers, actually slow down a film with an imperceptible pace. Swanberg is one of those movie-guys who shows up everywhere, acting in his buddy's films or producing things. The funny thing is, those projects are often better than his movies. If Happy Christmas is any indication, he's apparently stopped trying to keep up with his peers.

Happy Christmas spends too much time focusing on basement furnishings on DVD courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.78:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is somewhat sharp and clear. There is a notable amount of grain on the image for most of the film. The picture looks noticeably flat and the level of detail in only adequate. The colors look good and the picture is never overly dark or bright. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which delivers clear dialogue and sound effects. A party scene provides some mild surround and subwoofer effects. There are obvious stereo effects in some scenes which alert us to sounds coming from off-screen.

The Happy Christmas DVD contains no extra features.

Review Copyright 2014 by Mike Long