'Happy Christmas': Talky take on two-career couples becoming parents
Banal, or beautifully real?
In Happy Christmas - the latest from the perhaps too industrious Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg - the quotidian dramas of a couple with a small child and a feckless houseguest are brought to the screen with matter-of-fact exactitude. Conversations happen over the kitchen sink, at bathtime for the kid.
Beers are had, weed is smoked, "um" and "cool" are frequently said.
It's the same improvisational approach Swanberg took in Drinking Buddies, a study of male-female relationships (can men and women ever just be friends?), with Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson, released last year. Anna Kendrick was in that, too, and she appears in Happy Christmas as Jenny, the twentysomething younger sister to filmmaker Jeff (Swanberg). Landed in Chicago from New York, she's come to stay with her brother and his wife, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), a New Zealand transplant. (Lynskey costarred with Kate Winslet in Peter Jackson's trippy 1994 murder tale Heavenly Creatures.) Kelly, a novelist, is fine with her husband's sis camping out in the basement. They could use the free babysitting.
But even before she has unpacked, Jenny is out the door, hooking up with an old college friend (Lena Dunham) and heading for a party. No worries, says Jeff, stay out as late as you like. He'll leave the side door unlocked.
Happy Christmas examines, in its shambling way, the challenges facing dual-career couples as they become parents. The film, talky and low-key, looks at the relationships between adult siblings - which are largely built on childhood memories, good and bad. Kendrick, carrying her hobo bag of improvisational riffs, is a tiny bundle of nervous smiles. When Jenny hooks up with Kevin (Mark Webber), Jeff and Kelly's pot dealer/musician/babysitter friend, even a stranger watching from across several rows of diner booths (or theater aisles) could tell you they aren't going to last.
And so Happy Christmas trucks on, considering issues of child-rearing (Swanberg's real-life tot, a preternaturally sentient pip-squeak, "plays" the kid), girl talk, marital and in-law dynamics, and how to pursue one's creative passions when there are diapers to change and laundry to do. Emotional maturity - or immaturity - is another topic on the table, thanks to Kendrick's character's penchant for getting totally wasted.
Despite a panicky interlude with a smoke alarm, things reach nothing like an Edward Albee crescendo as the titular holiday rolls around.
In Happy Christmas, there are gifts under the tree. And then people open them.
Happy Christmas ** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Joe Swanberg. With Swanberg, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber, Anna Kendrick, and Lena Dunham. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, sex, drugs, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Bourse.