Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas in July in December

One of the most unusual movies to come out this summer had to be Happy Christmas, which released in the U.S. on July 25th.

As a movie, there's nothing "unusual" about it at all. In fact, writer-director Joe Swanberg would probably wear its "usualness" as a badge of honor, as the ostensible goal of mumblecore films (he helped found that movement) is to depict everyday life.

The unusual part is that a movie with the word "Christmas" in the title came out nowhere near Christmastime. Though they did throw the marketing team a bone by releasing on the 25th of July, which is the informal date of "Christmas in July." (We held our Christmas party that night at my old summer job, I can tell you that much.) The fact that the 25th happened to be a Friday, the traditional release day for new movies, meant they didn't even have to bend over backwards to make it work.

Still, salvaging a gimmicky release date doesn't mean that the move makes a lot of sense from a marketing perspective.

However, it does go with the film's sensibility. Movies about Christmas actually released at Christmastime inevitably carry big expectations ... big expectations that a Joe Swanberg movie was never meant to satisfy. A Joe Swanberg movie was better off being consumed by most of us on Netflix ... and its July release date meant that it was perfectly situated to be watched by most of us at Christmastime.

So my wife and I watched it on Sunday night, December 21st, with our own tree twinkling just off to the left of the screen.

And darn it if I did not enjoy the hell out of this movie.

That wasn't a foregone conclusion. Even though I traditionally love mumblecore -- the Duplass brothers can do (almost) no wrong in my eyes -- I did not really dig Swanberg's last movie, Drinking Buddies, which was (quite surprisingly) the first Swanberg film I'd seen. The characters in that film may be raucous and playful with one another, but there was an essential off-putting quality to them and a lack of warmth in the film overall.

Not so with Happy Christmas. I felt Joe Swanberg's empathy seeping through every frame of this movie. And I wasn't necessarily sure Swanberg had empathy, having watched him as an actor this past year in movies like You're Next and The Sacrament -- both of which I liked (the latter a lot more than the former), but neither of which is what you would exactly call optimistic about humanity.

Happy Christmas gets the humanity just about perfect, and in turn becomes a perfect delivery on the promise of the non-ironic reading of its title. It's not like there's no conflict here, but the conflict is life-sized and believable, and deals with relatable human foibles. Everything is so low-key that you aren't bracing yourself for some operatic tragedy in the third act. It's just a small-scale human dramedy set against a Christmas backdrop, with delightfully intuitive improvised performances from its cast of seasoned pros. (I always love me some Anna Kendrick, and I don't always love me some Lena Dunham, but she worked very well here in a supporting role. Plus, how often do we get to see Melanie Lynskey speak in her native Kiwi accent? Meanwhile, Joe Swanberg is so cool that he doesn't even include his own name on the poster, though he's got about the same sized role as the people he does list.)

Then there's the fact that the movie operated on a very personal level for us, dealing as it does with how to maintain your sense of self and identity while having to adjust your working life following the birth of a child. Both my wife and I have had to deal with that before -- she initially, me more recently. To make matters yet more relatable, Lynskey's character is trying to find the time to get back to her writing -- something my wife has been struggling with, especially since the birth of our second, but even since the birth of our first. Then you've got a woman from New Zealand married to a guy from America, living in America ... well, that was us just 18 months ago, if you swap New Zealand for Australia. So yeah, this was "our movie."

And it made for quite the nice Christmas treat.

For most of you, this will post will publish on your Christmas Eve. That means you still have time to watch it on the 24th or the 25th, since you almost certainly have Netflix, and you may not have already figured out what your Christmas-themed viewing will be.

It would have been plenty delightful in July, but it's all the more so now.

Merry -- make that, Happy -- Christmas, everyone.

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