Improvisational filmmaking is a strange animal, as its existence defies standard critical conventions. Stories can often feel loose and lacking in traditional narrative arcs, but that’s because the cast and crew made this film without a script and only a broad outline of plot and characters. Dialogue often isn’t catchy, memorable, or even especially dramatic, but the trade-off is naturalistic, overlapping exchanges that seem to mirror real life, largely because the actors are being about as real as possible. So by what metric does one measure a film like Happy Christmas when the characters, script, and direction were purposely handled without any real sense of care, and that was part of the whole point of the production?
Well, starting with what semblance of story there is, Jenny is an irresponsible 27-year-old, prone to drinking and passing out, who moves in with her brother Jeff, his wife Kelly, and their two-year-old son. And beyond that basic premise, there isn’t so much a narrative as decently realized character moments. Kelly wanted Jenny around to help care for the child, but upon seeing Jenny’s immature habits is concerned. Jeff is afraid to confront his sister about her faults because he still wants to be the cool older brother. Jenny convinces Kelly to pursue her novel-writing profession more vigorously by writing a trashy romance novel to bring in the money. The film moves from point to point with a fluidity that resembles real life, and these people seem real and believable enough where nothing feels out of place or especially extraordinary. This, however, is a double-edged sword, because it also means that most of the film is devoid of a central conflict, and when the film finally does find its defining moments, it doesn’t dwell and promptly ends before it meanders into incoherence.
However, improvisational films have generally had these limitations, but make up for it by being visually interesting. Take Shortbus for example. That was a film that combined its improvisational style with a thematic purpose and some interesting camerawork and post-production special effects for its bizarre finale. While there is a theme of family support and growing up in Happy Christmas, the technical side of things feels lacking, rarely rising above the level of a three-camera sitcom. There are no close-ups, no tracking shots, nothing to make the mundane suburban setting visually interesting, leaving the actors to carry the film like it was a stage production. And while the performances are serviceable and even likeable, they aren’t really good enough to stake the whole production on.
I can recommend this film for pretty much one thing: background noise. The prime situation for watching movie is something to have on as family members begin to arrive for the holidays, something that you can start watching while you wait, ignore as people start filtering in, and jump back in at any point without really caring what happened in between and still be mildly entertained, even while distracted by real-life banter. However, this is not a film that works well as a complete artistic work, and while thankfully short at only eighty minutes, it is not worth the time to watch in its entirety. A holiday classic this is not.
Huzzah obligatory holiday film review! Let’s move on to the remainder of the year’s home video releases so we can get to awards season. Thoughts in the comments below.