Joe Swanberg is still not quite a household name. But with a staggering 27 directing credits to his name, according to IMDB, the mumblecore stalwart can’t be faulted for lack of trying. And things may be shifting. His feature in the first V/H/S was the stand-out, his 2011 starring role in Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s terrific suspense flick You’re Next got more attention than usual (editor’s note: see their 2014 Swanberg-less The Guest, one of the best films of the year), and his 2013 Drinking Buddies attractively married the patented low-key approach of his hangout scene to something approximating a Hollywood rom-com. Happy Christmas, starring the absurdly likable Anna Kendrick, with Lena Dunham in a key supporting role and a baby that steals every scene, is his best, most approachable film to date.
Let’s say it up front: almost nothing happens in Happy Christmas. Kendrick’s Jenny is a down on her luck 27 year old who comes to crash with her older, married brother Jeff (Swanberg), his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynsky), and their infant (Jude Swanberg – the whole team showed up for this one!). Her friend Carson (Dunham) comes by every once in a while. She smokes weed, has afternoon drinks, and generally disrupts what we perceive as an increasingly mundane day-to-day.
Kelly’s a frustrated writer, with some success behind her but overwhelmed with the realities of raising a kid. Her Christmas request? Some time to write. So she splits her hours between home and a room of her own, increasingly shared with Jenny and Carson, who have big ideas about how her next book should go. Basically, they see her way out of depending on her husband is to make a lot of cash with a romance novel, vaguely modeled on 50 Shades of Grey or Danielle Steele. No one really cares what happens in this novel – it just has to sell copies. And for the movie, it just has to serve as a reason for the three lead actresses to improvise, which they do wonderfully.
In the mean time, we track Jenny’s romantic encounters, especially with the nice, noise-band enthusiast Kevin, who sells her pot. (Actually, he gives her pot; he’s too nice to start selling it.) Their scenes are adorable and fun – a highlight includes how she’d like her hair pulled during sex, which I don’t think they ever really work out. Fuck, it’s complicated!
We also watch Jenny fail to grow up, but see how her presence effects everyone else, often in very good ways. She’s like a manic pixie dream girl without a boy to redeem – or maybe the whole family is that boy? Kelly starts writing again, Jeff is kinder. The baby is cute, but that was already true.
Happy Christmas is almost the Platonic ideal of a hangout movie. The people are fun to be around, the stakes are small, and it’s very relatable. When Jenny burns a pizza and the house fills up with smoke, alarming everyone else while she sleeps, I flashed back to a house on U St. in Washington D.C., circa 2005. One of my roomates, a mild-mannered guy, lost his fucking mind the third time another roommate fell asleep with pizza in the oven. Shook him by the collar in his bed, screaming, “WHY DO YOU FUCKING MAKE PIZZAS AND FALL ASLEEP, WHAT THE FUCK, I THOUGHT WE WERE GOING TO DIE?”
It was a good question then and it’s a good question now. Happy Christmas comes on charmingly, and it ends up feeling like a friend. Kendrick is unbelievably charming, both Swanberg and Lynsky do good work, Dunham is hilarious, and what is the deal with that fucking baby? Has he also already directed 27 films? Kid’s a natural, and I would’ve watched another hour.