Movie Review: Improvisation puts a damper on ‘Happy Christmas’

Happy holidays interrupted: Lena Dunham, Melanie Lynskey and Jude Swanberg in “Happy Christmas.”
Happy holidays interrupted: Lena Dunham, Melanie Lynskey and Jude Swanberg in “Happy Christmas.”

‘Happy Christmas’
★★ 1/2

It’s painfully slow going at time, but at least a couple of interesting topics are broached in the latest micro-budged dramedy from Joe Swanberg.

As is often the case with his movies, though, the lack of scripted dialogue obscures what the writer/director is trying to say.

Swanberg’s a featured actor this time as well, playing Jeff, a Chicago filmmaker and family man whose novelist wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey of TV’s “Two and a Half Men”) has become a stay-at-home mom caring for their two-year-old Jude (Jude Swanberg, the director’s son, who steals every scene).

Christmas is coming but the front-and-center event is the arrival of Jeff’s younger sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick of “Pitch Perfect”), who’s moving in for awhile to recover from a romantic breakup and supposedly provide a little babysitting relief for Kelly. Her visit gets off to a bad start when she goes out with the first night, gets blind drunk and has to be carried home by her brother. And Kelly is not amused.

The best thing about “Happy Christmas” is the way Swanberg puts primary emphasis on the women in the story, which developed from conversations with his wife Kris about the difficulties of being a mom and a working artist. Kendrick, also featured in Swanberg’s “Drinking Buddies” last year, gets the most screen time as Jenny, but it’s Kelly who’s by far the more appealing character.

That’s partially because Jenny, to quote Jeff, is “an incredibly immature person,” selfish, thoughtless and nervously awkward — and not in a likeable way. The idea is that she needs to develop along the lines of responsible, mature Kelly, but Kelly also has something to learn from Jenny, who encourages her not to give up on her dreams.

There’s an element of light comedy in “Happy Christmas,” particularly after Jenny convinces Kelly to write an erotic bodice-ripper as a moneymaking project.

The scenes in which Kelly and Jenny and Jenny’s friend Carson (Lena Dunham of HBO’s “Girls”) plot out the erotic scenario, including discussions of how to the refer to the characters’ genitalia, have an easy, free-flowing charm that shows Swanberg’s improvisational technique at its best.

For the most part, though, we’re invited to wince as Jenny displays her troubled psyche, moping in her brothers’s Tiki bar basement (a real feature of Swanberg’s Chicago home), embarking on a doomed relationship with Jude’s pot-dealing babysitter (Mark Webber) and binge-drinking whenever she experiences a setback.

Fortunately, Swanberg pulls off a graceful, emotional finale that resolves the situation, at least temporarily, and serves up some hope just as things are looking most dire. He does it in a way that neatly illustrates the emotional truth he’s presumably seeking by choosing to work without a script, but he forces us to work a little too hard to get there.

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