What is Last Christmas about? Second chances, Brexit, the homeless crisis, or George Michael? It seems no one from director Paul Feig to screenwriters Byrony Kimmings and Emma Thompson knew. In the 103 minute runtime many topics are touched on, and then lazily drifted away from. The story is inspired by the song “Last Christmas” by Wham! (when the twist is later revealed it appears to be a very literal interpretation.) The film starts in Yugoslavia in 1999 (which dissolved as a country in 1992 but the accuracy of global politics is usually not the focus of schmaltzy Christmas films) as a younger version of the film’s star Kate (Madison Ingoldsby) leads a choral performance of Michael’s song “Heal the Pain” establishing the character’s vocal talents and ambitions. The film then fast forwards to a 2016 Kate (Emilia Clarke) drunkenly hooking up with a stranger in London. This is a regular occurrence for Kate, as her life is shown to be in complete shambles after suffering from a heart condition and receiving a transplant. She’s without an apartment and frequently bounces from couch to couch as she continuously terrorizes her friends with her selfish attitude, including killing what looks to be a very expensive pet fish. Between auditions for West End shows she works as an elf at a Christmas themed story for a Chinese woman known affectionately as “Santa” (Michelle Yeoh) although it’s clear her job performance is lacking. At work she dodges calls from her mother as she explains her strained relationship with her family, and a complete apathy to reconnect. Because this is billed as a romantic comedy there is only one thing that can cure Kate of her terrible personality and that’s an impossibly handsome man.
While daydreaming at work she spies Tom (Henry Golding) outside, leading to their inevitable meet-cute wherein a bird defecates onto her face. They playfully tease each other the required amount of times and Kate reluctantly agrees to go for a walk with Tom. On her way out she forgets to lock up the Christmas shop, leading to a break in that night. The next day she is confronted by Santa who gives her one more chance to shape up and fix her attitude. After running out of friends to stay with, Kate is forced to move back into her childhood home. She struggles to adjust to her overbearing and vaguely Soviet mother Marta (Emma Thompson) whom she has ignored since her heart surgery. This is one of the film’s laziest choices. In order to establish and explain their strained relationship the film relies heavily on stereotypes of Eastern Europeans being cold and difficult people, as well as the trauma her parents have experienced as immigrants. It is later determined they are in fact Croatian, so the KGB joke Kate tells seems like an odd choice. Beyond remarking that her mother was happier when she was sick because she enjoyed the attention, and mentioning her father’s work troubles, the dynamics of their relationships are hardly explored. All that’s known is that her parents dislike each other, Kate ignores everyone, and her sister has yet to come out as lesbian (a fact almost revealed by Kate during dinner to create tension.)
As her nightly walks with Tom continue Kate slowly opens up about her past. His never ending optimism and charitable personality rubs off on her, as he shows her the homeless shelter he volunteers at. Something to note is that Tom always appears in the same clothes, always at night, and never when any of her friends and family are around. Their walks start to become sporadic so Kate is forced to become a better person on her own, as she slowly makes changes to become less of a monster. She helps Santa secure a date with a customer who loves Christmas and sauerkraut in what is the weirdest but also most charming subplot in this film. She starts using her singing talent to raise money for the homeless, eventually stepping up to volunteer regularly at the shelter. This leads to a bizarrely comedic montage of homeless people auditioning for a charity concert, which was a baffling way to insert more comedy into what often felt like a romantic drama. She also comforts her mother who is worried about the Brexit issue.
The Brexit conversation is part of perhaps the largest story issue in this film. While it’s a worthwhile subject it felt completely shoehorned into the film. This is when the writers should’ve made a choice. The big twist in the film (spoiler alert!) is that Tom isn’t alive. He’s the ghost of the man that donated his heart to Kate. The entire time she’s been seeing him, it’s been hallucinations of his form that only she can see. The message being that last Christmas he gave her his heart in more ways than one. He visits her to encourage her to use the second chance she’s been given to live life to the fullest and become a kinder person. Prior to Kate finding all of this out she is seen comforting other immigrants on the bus who are feeling alienated in Britain. There’s a montage of her wandering through a multi-cultural farmers market in London, enjoying the diversity of the town. All of this is set up to imply that perhaps Tom, or his family, would be effected in someway. This could’ve been a touching cross cultural love story, highlighting the positives of immigration and diversity in society. It’s understandable to want to touch on an emotionally pressing issue like Brexit but sprinkling it in like that watered down the message. Instead they should’ve focused more on Tom’s life prior to dying, as seeing him as a more fleshed out character could’ve lead to a larger emotional impact when the heart transplant is revealed.
Finally the film wraps up with an emotionally stable Kate serenading a crowd with a George Michael song at the charity Christmas concert. Her parents are inexplicably in love again (the power of Christmas?) her sister is proudly there with her girlfriend, and every friend she pissed off is cheering her on in the audience. It’s an awfully saccharine and undeserved note for the story to end on, but being that this film is a boring string of thrown together moments that feel unearned it seems an appropriate way to end it.