For those expecting a traditional holiday romance, “Last Christmas” is something of a surprise. That will likely produce a split response to this dragon-free vehicle for “Game of Thrones’” Emilia Clarke, which, with its playlist of George Michael songs, really depends on what you’re looking for if you decide to go-go.
Given the predictable nature of this genre, some will be struck by the movie’s ambitions, which give it some edge and relevance. Others are just as likely to find it manipulative and sappy – or simply be disappointed that it’s not closer to the Hallmark-type fare that’s basically used as date-night counterprogramming this time of year.
Clarke’s Kate is a bit of a mess when the story begins, bouncing from one drink and one-night stand to the next, and working at a year-round Christmas store where she has to dress like an elf. (The store is owned by Michelle Yeoh, which makes every trip there among the brightest baubles on this particular tree.)
Soon enough, Kate meets Tom (Yeoh’s “Crazy Rich Asians” co-star, Henry Golding), a dreamy if mysterious type, who leads her on tours of the city, tells her to “Look up” and helps break some of those bad habits. Foremost, that includes her selfishness, the byproduct of a bout with a life-threatening condition.
Still, director Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids”) and co-writers Emma Thompson (who doubles, delightfully, as Kate’s immigrant mom) and Bryony Kimmings have more on their minds than just the usual romantic comedy. For starters, the London-set film incorporates Brexit into the plot, with Kate’s Yugoslavian parents having emigrated to the U.K., and her mother leery of anti-immigrant sentiment creeping into the country.
The film derives its title, meanwhile – and very, very loosely, its premise – from the Michael song of the same name, weaving a whole lot of the late singer’s output into the story. Kate is a big fan, which helps explain, sort of, the connection, although the jukebox aspects feel more arbitrary than anything else.
For better or worse, “Last Christmas” requires a certain level of surprise, so reviews shouldn’t go much further than that. Clarke is charming and easy to root for, even saddled with elf shoes and slim material, and Yeoh and Thompson enliven a movie that frequently feels as if it’s drifting between interludes.
Put all that together, and “Last Christmas” isn’t the assembly-line product it could have been, but nor is it as special as it seemingly intended to be. Viewed that way if you just go with it, the movie is mildly enjoyable, the disclaimer being that like the man sang, you gotta have faith.
“Last Christmas” premieres Nov. 8 in the US. It’s rated PG-13.