Family relationships are fragile. They provide us our blueprint for intimacy, and hopefully confront us ugly about ourselves, ultimately leading to reflection and growth. This is a beautiful thing and it’s almost what happens in “Happy Christmas,” written, directed and starring mumblecore auteur Joe Swanberg. His freeform, handheld, improv approach which elevated his ensemble dramedy “Drinking Buddies” falls flat in this case. Where “drinking buddies” gave the audience just enough of an interweaving tangled lovestory to help us fill in the unsaid dialogue, “Happy Christmas” leaves too much to be guessed at without enough character growth.
It starts out with Jenny (Anna Kendrick) coming to stay with her older brother Jeff (Swanberg), his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) in their tiki themed basement over the Christmas holidays, with the hopes that she can help with the caretaking of their toddler Jude (Swanberg’s actual son Jude). Jenny quickly proves herself an irresponsible adult in the eyes of Kelly, as she shirks the dinner dishes, goes to a party with her friend Carsen (Lena Dunham) and proceeds to get too drunk and high to pull herself off the ground. Jeff has to come to her rescue, dismisses her behavior as a fluke, and thus causes the only marital tension we see for the whole film, as Kelly finds this a major cause for concern. She gently forces Jeff to “talk” with his sister, leading to one of the more shimmering glimpses of comedy potential, where he enters the basement, sits in silence for what feels like a minute with Jenny while she’s on the computer, then stands up and exits. This is the first of many similar moments, where dramatic steam is built up then dissipates into existential nothingness. The plot stumbles forward from there, lingering mostly in a spectrum of mildly embarrassing to cutesy heart warming funny. Jenny takes up a haphazard relationship with her replacement babysitter, the drug dealing aspiring musician friend of the couple, Kevin (Mark Webber), who can never seem to be quite on the same romantic page as Jenny.
Jenny slowly bridges a friendship with Kelly, as they begin to collaborate on an erotic novel in hopes of rekindling Kelly’s writing career. This relationship gives us brief insight into the potential of what these sister in laws might have to offer eachother: Jenny bringing the youthful spark of hopeful naivety, and Kelly bringing something that Jenny fails to vocalize in one forcedly awkward scene. I might have ventured a guess as to what that is, but because we’re not given any general idea of what these characters want or where their stories might be headed, I lost interest in venturing any guesses. In fact, my one hunch about the film is that it sprouted from Swanberg’s urge to fix his lense on his baby son, Jude, who steals every scene that he’s in. There is a famous quote by a great actor that roughly states if a cat wanders on stage during a play and the audience continues to give its attention to the drama of the story, then you know you have a good show. If Swanberg were to put his baby onscreen with a cat, I would’ve forgot about the other actors entirely.
My main takeaway from this film is, if you spend enough time with a baby as robustly adorable as Jude, it will make the more painful elements of family relationships seem to evaporate like dew on a wintery Chicago window sill. That and Lena Dunham can steer pretty much any scene into comedy terrain. If you were already aware of either of these facts, I would pass on “Happy Christmas.”
Release Dates: July 25 (LA); August 1 (NY), June 26 (VOD)