TMN Movie Review: "Happy Christmas"

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Irresponsible 20-something Jenny arrives in Chicago to live with her older brother Jeff, a young film-maker living a happy existence with his novelist wife Kelly and their two-year-old son. Jenny's arrival shakes up their quiet domesticity as she and her friend Carson instigate an evolution in Kelly's life and career. Meanwhile, Jenny strikes up a rocky relationship with the family's baby sitter-cum-pot dealer.
Happy Christmas - Official Trailer
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Rating: R
Length: 88 minutes
Release Date: June 26, 2014
Directed by: Joe Swanberg
Genre: Comedy / Drama

Some people celebrate Christmas in July, putting up a fake tree, wrapping presents and making a celebratory dinner for friends and family. Hollywood doesn't seem to be as into this tradition, since they almost never put out a holiday movie before the fall. That has changed now with the introduction of "Happy Christmas," a funny romantic comedy/drama with an unlikely but welcome summer release.

Jenny (Anna Kendrick) is a lovable loser who has just broken up with her boyfriend and doesn't know what the next step in her life will be. She temporarily moves in with her brother Jeff (Joe Swanberg), who lives with his loving writer wife, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), and their adorable baby son, Jude (Jude Swanberg, Joe's real-life son). The arrangement is that Jenny can stay for free in their house in exchange for child care so that Jeff can make his film, and Kelly can write her next novel. The problem is that Jenny is a scatterbrain and fairly irresponsible. She spends a lot of time with her friend Carson (Lena Dunham), who pretty much encourages her bad behavior. They smoke pot, drink and party far too much, to the point where Jeff and Kelly question whether they really want Jenny taking care of their son.

As Jenny is disappointing people and trying to figure out if she should move to Chicago to start with a fresh slate, she meets Kevin (Mark Webber), a pot dealer who also occasionally does some babysitting. She swears she isn't going to let Kevin be her rebound relationship but finds herself falling for him anyway. In the meantime, she props up Kelly, who is finding it hard to reconcile her role as a parent with her sagging professional life. Sure, Jenny may not be the ideal houseguest, but she means well and actually ends up helping out a lot of the people around her, not just Kelly. Now, if only she could figure out what she wants and help herself, she might just find some kind of direction for her wayward life.

Director Joe Swanberg is largely credited with being a grandfather of the mumblecore movie movement, which values conversation and slice-of-life situations over action or adventure. The movies are usually dramas with a heaping helping of comedy thrown in. This has been Swanberg's modus operandi since he began directing, and it has served him well. His past movies often had little plot or forward momentum, but he has started changing that with his last few films. The most notable change was 2013's "Drinking Buddies," which had a definite plot that needed to be resolved before the end of the movie. "Happy Christmas" has a similar form, with a true first, second and third act, much like traditional movies are shaped. This new format (for Swanberg) works well, and makes the movie his most accessible to date.

Just because Swanberg seems to be trying to go for a more traditional plot, that doesn't mean that he has abandoned all of his trademarks. There is nary a chase scene, car explosion or action sequence anywhere in the film. The focus is on dialogue first and foremost, with different players talking in different combinations throughout the film. Many of the conversations are awkward and even slightly uncomfortable because they really feel true to life. Many who watch the film will probably relate to at least one, if not many, of the talks that the characters engage in. This helps make the film more accessible to a wider audience, especially those who value friendship and family and all the chaos that may ensue as a result.

Kendrick was in "Drinking Buddies," but in a supporting role where she didn't get a ton of screen time. This time, Swanberg, perhaps seeing just how fantastic an actor she is, puts her front and center. The audience gets to see Jenny's full range of characteristics, flaws and all. Kendrick is so charming that even Jenny's flaws seem lovable. She is great in this film, but Lynskey and Webb give her a run for her movie star money. They may not be the household names that Kendrick is, but Lynskey and Webb show that they can more than hold their own with an Oscar nominee. Webb seems destined to be the next generation's romantic comedy heartthrob, while Lynskey could easily make a career out of playing the kooky best friend. Swanberg also turns in an admiral performance, ensuring that the next generation of mumblecore filmmakers and actors will have a fine, entertaining template to work from.