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"Happy Christmas" Movie Review

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

"Happy Christmas"  (2014)

To say that Jenny (Anna Kendrick) is a slacker and not very motivated would be an understatement. She comes to live in her brother's basement (Tiki bar style decorated by the previous owner), a filmmaker named Jeff (Joe Swanberg) who lives in the home with his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), a novelist who hasn't written much lately, and their two-year-old son. Neither Jeff nor his wife are happy at the prospects of having Jenny live with them for any amount of time. Jeff knows first-hand how irresponsible she can be, and Kelly is worried that leaving their son with her for any amount of time would be a bad idea. Jenny promises to be on her best behavior and to help out babysitting to "earn her keep." Jenny quickly breaks this promise by going to a party at her best friend's (Lena Dunham) house. There she gets intoxicated, makes out with a stranger and then passes out in a hallway. She is so drunk that her friend calls Jeff to come pick her up. That's all on her first night. In fact, Jenny is so drunk that she doesn't get up in the morning, and Kelly has to hire a babysitter, Kevin (Mark Webber) to take care of her son as she goes out to run some errands. Once again, Jenny has let her family down; can she ever turn it around?

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Writer / director Joe Swanberg, who brought us last year's hilarious "Drinking Buddies" is back with this film about growing up, taking responsibility and finding the motivation to finish what you start. This film is a little different than most, in that all of Swanberg's dialogue is ab-libbed by the cast, making the scenes feel very real and touching. The downside to this approach is that several scenes go on a little too long and because the nature of the film, too often the camera either has to stay in a two shot or moves back and forth between characters, making it seem like you are watching a ping pong game.

Anytime you ab-lib anything it's up to the cast to make it work, and fortunately, this is a very talented cast, full up for the challenge. Led by the personable Anna Kendrick, the cast is the best part of the film. Kendrick is a performer who dominates any scene that she is in. She moves with grace and humor, filling the screen with her likable persona. She has a natural comedic touch and no matter what stupid things her character does, we still end up liking her. Lena Dunham is a nice presence in her scenes as Carson, playing the low-key best friend. She shares a couple of wonderful scenes with Kendrick and Lynskey, mostly over wine. Joe Swanberg does ask too much of himself, and I am guessing playing a version of himself. Mark Webber does a fine job playing the love interest of Kendrick, in the role of a man who has to struggle to keep up with her personality and quirky ways.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Besides Kendrick, it's Melanie Lynskey who makes this a film to watch. Lynskey, getting to use her native New Zealand accent, is perfect in the role of the woman who has put her career on hold to raise a child. Lynskey has great chemistry with Swanberg, making their scenes together highly enjoyable to watch, so much so, you don't always want the scenes they have to end. There is a scene very early in the film that shows you the ease that Lynskey plays the part. She has walked into a conversation that Jenny and Carson are having. As they invite her to join them, she has to quickly size up if their compliments they shower on her are just to butter her up or if they are genuine. You can see in her body language, how her character goes through a number of emotions before finally realizing and enjoying the moment.

Cinematographer Ben Richardson shot the movie with a somewhat grainy look, making the film at times feel like it's a home movie. Swanberg gets everything from his talented cast, especially Kendrick and Lynskey. It's rare nowadays in modern film to have two such strong, dominate female performances in the same film, and that is what makes this film worth watching.    My Rating: Full Price

My movie rating system from Best to Worst:  1). I Would Pay to See it Again  2). Full Price  3). Bargain Matinee  4). Cable  5). You Would Have to Pay Me to See it Again

"Happy Christmas" is playing exclusively at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema

"Happy Christmas" Website

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