The Stylistic Achievements and Limitations of “Happy Christmas”

Gertrude Stein, speaking of her old childhood home in California, said “there is no there there.” The charm of Joe Swanberg’s “Happy Christmas” (2014) is that the there is that there is no there there. It’s not a typical Christmas family comedy-drama, which may come off as a shock for a Christmas movie starring Anna Kendrick. It’s probably best described as “if Woody Allan directed a Hallmark script,” with the exception being that because it’s written by Swanberg, the dialogue is improvised. 

Cinematographically, the entire film is shot on the Arriflex 416 (handheld and 16mm), which, when supplemented by the sound editing and mixing that allows for greater room tone than usual, produces a hearty home-video feel—at least in theory. In praxis, the cinematography is too impatient for the true home-video vibe. The camera wanders and creeps in ways that break verisimilitude and the nostalgic atmosphere. 

The most obvious example of this being in the scene where Jeff (Joe Swanberg) welcomes his younger sister Jenny (Kendrick), who just broke up with her romantic partner, to his family’s home for the holidays. After exiting the taxi, the camera pushes slowly and pointlessly. With the established home-video feeling from the previous scenes—just a father, mother, and child chilling in their home with a shaky-cam that doesn’t move all that much and has little incidental music—this push ruins its intended purpose. It feels as if someone is intruding on Jenny and Jeff but no one is. This style, probably borrowed from Swanberg’s roots in the found-horror genre (“VHS” [2012] ), just limits “Happy Christmas.” 

On the other hand, the improvisation works excellently with Kendrick. It would be easy for her to give a typical mumblecore performance that would have resonated better with critics and would have been worthy of Noah Baumbach, but that’s not what she gives. She babbles incessantly when embarrassed and struggles to form coherent sentences. Her flirting scenes with Kevin (Mark Webber) are more accurate than any equivalent scene in the mumblecore canon. Because of the absence of planned dialogue, it feels as if Kendrick and Webber are actually flirting—and they might be. 

All-in-all, this holiday entry isn’t “about” anything, and in the words of Sean Gilman, it’s “a film [so] utterly devoid of style, artfulness, subtext or even text itself.” But, that’s also what makes it a film worth its runtime: the Christmas movie genre as a sum is entirely pointless to the effect it destroys joviality; “Happy Christmas” gives that pointlessness a style to partner with.

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