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Movie review: Comedy ‘Happy Christmas’ is a smart summer treat

First Published Jul 31 2014 03:48PM      Last Updated Aug 04 2014 08:04 am

Unless you live in New York or Los Angeles, or spend a lot of time watching video-on-demand, you may not have seen many of director Joe Swanberg’s films.

The Detroit-born Swanberg is prolific, having directed 14 feature films since 2007, when his first breakout hit, "Hannah Takes the Stairs," was released. He’s known for semi-improvised comedies, often about twentysomethings who spend most of their time talking about their problems — often oblivious to how self-absorbed they sound.

Swanberg’s latest, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is "Happy Christmas," and it may be the movie that breaks him out to middle America. It’s bright, funny, warm and charming — and it’s refreshingly woman-centric in a male-dominated movie landscape.



AT A GLANCE

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‘Happy Christmas’

Director/writer/editor Joe Swanberg’s latest low-key comedy — starring Anna Kendrick as an irresponsible twentysomething — is a delight, particularly for its authentic female voices.

Where » Broadway Centre Cinemas.

When » Opens Friday, Aug. 1.

Rating » R for language, drug use and some sexual content.

Running time » 88 minutes.


The movie centers on a Chicago family at Christmastime. Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and Jeff (played by Swanberg) are married with a 2-year-old, played by Swanberg’s son Jude, who’s a real scene-stealer. They open their home to Jenny (Anna Kendrick), Jeff’s screw-up little sister, who’s a real mess: prone to binge drinking and just over a breakup.

Jenny’s self-destructive behavior worries Kelly, but at the same time her arrival helps spark Kelly’s creativity. Kelly is a novelist who’s been stuck in her status as a stay-at-home mom, and Jenny is just what she needs to get back into gear. Kelly takes over an office Jeff has been renting and turns it into her writing room.

It’s in Kelly’s temporary office where "Happy Christmas" percolates at its best. Kelly and Jenny, along with Jenny’s best friend Carson (played by Lena Dunham of "Girls"), start brainstorming novel ideas — and the conversations, largely improvised and workshopped by the three actresses, are funny and emotionally authentic conversations about the perils of women "having it all."

The rest of "Happy Christmas" doesn’t spark as brightly as those scenes, especially when Swanberg — who edited the film, too — has to insert some semblance of a plot into the proceedings. But when his actresses are firing on all cylinders, the movie shines.

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