Making improvisational films is a dicey proposition, and Joe Swanbergís Happy Christmas offers a nearly perfect encapsulation of the good and bad results that can come from winging the dialogue as you go.
Anna Kendrick stars as Jenny, a 27-year-old with worsening addiction issues who moves in with her brother Jeff (Swanberg) and his novelist-turned-housewife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), who is less than thrilled to have her irresponsible sister-in-law stay with them. The couple have a young toddler named Jude, and Jenny is supposed to get herself together while helping with the child.
Through her old friend Carson (Lena Dunham), the impulsive Jenny meets Kevin (Mark Webber), a pot dealer, and the two begin a romantic relationship. This brings some of her worst instincts to the surface, just as sheís finally started to win over Kelly by convincing her to write a trashy romance novel in order to make some cash.
Swanbergís moviemaking method is still informed by his mumblecore roots. He crafts a story by providing a purpose for each scene, and he shapes the characters, but the actors make up the dialogue as the cameras roll. At its best, as in Swanbergís 2013 film Drinking Buddies, the results can make the characters seem fresh and real, but when the magical alchemy never coalesces, that process can lead to scene after scene of conversations far too close to real life to be all that interesting.
The cast here is solid. Kendrick keeps her character infuriatingly unmoored; thereís nothing cute about Jennyís alcohol problem, but sheís such a charming person otherwise that you can see why people keep tolerating her excesses. The movie is at its best when she, Lynskey, and Dunham share the screen, especially in an early scene where Kelly reveals her desire to write more.
Thatís the first scene where the movie feels like itís about something -- the conflict a woman feels between working and her domestic responsibilities -- but Swanberg keeps that on the back burner and remains focused on Jenny instead of Kelly. He doesnít allow his best character to be his lead role, so instead we get the initially awkward dates between Jenny and Kevin that are fine little acting exercises, but just arenít as compelling as the bigger issues Kelly wrestles with.
Swanbergís unobtrusive approach works best not when heís showing you something that has the feel of unvarnished truth to it, but when heís showing you something youíve never seen before in a movie. The genuine platonic friendship between a man and a woman at the heart of Drinking Buddies made that film a touching and wise rebuke to the typical romantic comedy, but Happy Christmas, as easy as it is to watch, ends up being nothing more than a typical portrait of an emotionally stunted addict that differentiates itself from similar movies only by being so low-key.
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