Jenny (Anna Kendrick) is down on her luck and has decided to move in with her brother, Jeff (Joe Swanberg), his wife, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), and their toddler (Jude—the director’s son). It seems like a good idea for all three of them: Jenny gets free rent, Jeff gets his sister to pal around with, and Kelly gets some free childcare, but it doesn’t quite work out the way they hoped. Jenny is a little too self-absorbed, destructive and drunk to consistently help out. There are moments where she makes for a good babysitter and even manages to help Kelly rekindle some passion for writing, but once she gets a good head of steam on her shoulders, she gets highs, drinks too much, and passes out while a pizza burns in the oven. Jeff and Kelly understand or try to (they are not too far removed from Jenny’s age bracket), but their life is now one of responsibility, and Jenny’s actions are putting the family in harm’s way.
Happy Christmas is writer/producer/actor/director/you-name-it Joe Swanberg’s 16th movie. He started in 2005 with Kissing on the Mouth (a raw look at post-college life) and has consistently made low-budget movies that are often set in Chicago and deal with the low-key drama of real life. Although not an entirely successful movie, Happy Christmas is a giant leap forward for Swanberg. With it, he has moved from narcissistic and infuriating to passable. There are moments of Happy Christmas that I genuinely enjoyed, a first for me.
However great the leap may be, Swanberg remains un-inventive both in his approach to storytelling and the stories he tells. Which, in the case of Happy Christmas, is okay—there is little about it that begs for invention beyond a camera that simply follows the conversation around the room. The invention is in the improv, which is adequate in most scenes, but at its best when it involves Swanberg and his son. The best scene in the movie is by far the one of his child playing with wrapping paper on Christmas morning. There is genuine amusement on Swanberg’s face as he watches his child, and for a brief moment, he seems to forget the camera is there. An authentic moment is captured.
It may not be the most inventive or original puzzle, but the pieces all fit. The dialogue fits the characters, and the aesthetic fits the material. There are much worse ways to spend 90 minutes.
Happy Christmas (2014)
Written, Produced and Directed by: Joe Swanberg
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Joe Swanberg, Jude Swanberg, Mark Webber, Lena Dunham
Magnolia Pictures, Rated R, Running Time 88 minutes, Released July 25, 2014