The desk drawers (both literal and metaphorical) of novelists everywhere are filled with manuscripts that were abandoned once it became clear the project wasn’t shaping up. Even a writer as prolific as Stephen King has abandoned works (like The House On Value Street, an attempted roman à clef about the Patty Hearst kidnapping) after investing considerable time and energy on them. It’s surely not an easy decision, but at least there’s nobody else to disappoint. Novels are usually solo efforts.
Movies, however, are a different story. Once you’ve invited a group of actors to improvise a film from scratch, it’s not easy to tell them—or even to admit to yourself—that it just isn’t working. That’s the most likely explanation, at any rate, for how something as painfully inconsequential as Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas has found its way in front of a potential paying audience. Nobody involved ever came up with an idea or character remotely worth exploring, yet they all forged ahead anyway, placing their faith in the filmmaking process itself, and this damp squib of an ostensible movie is the decidedly lackluster result.
Mostly, Swanberg appears to have been eager to give some screen time to his 2-year-old son, Jude, who steals focus in one scene after another just doing normal little-kid stuff. Jude’s parents are Jeff (Swanberg), who has some ill-defined job in the film or music world, and Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), a writer who’s having trouble getting motivated to tackle her next book due to the stress of being a mom. Into this banal domestic scene arrives Jeff’s younger sister, Jenny (Anna Kendrick), who’s a little irresponsible. Conflict derives from Jeff and/or Kelly occasionally getting fed up with Jenny’s tendency to drink too much and pass out, while the female cast (including Lena Dunham as Jenny’s best friend) gamely try to find jokes in a subplot that sees Kelly try her hand at writing an erotic novel, hoping to make some quick cash.
When he finds the right collaborators—as he did with Jane Adams, Sophia Takal, and Larry Fessenden in last year’s superb All The Light In The Sky—Swanberg can generate surprising beauty and raw emotional truth by allowing his cast to invent the movie as they go along. Here, the flop sweat is evident at all times, as everyone (excepting little Swanberg Jr.) looks uneasy at shouldering the burden of coming up with something interesting to say or do. Lynskey seems perpetually lost (though she at least gets to use her own New Zealand accent, for a change), and it’s especially tough to watch Kendrick, who can be dynamite given a first-rate script, repeatedly fall back on cutesy mannerisms, responding to every lull by breaking into a sheepish grin. Dunham, for her part, just does Hannah Horvath, or herself—it’s hard to tell.
After an hour of fruitless wheel-spinning, Swanberg concocts a minor confrontation (Jenny burns a pizza!), then resolves it almost immediately, at which point the movie just stops. (“Ends” would imply that there was ever detectable forward motion.) “We didn’t really find anything this time, did we?” Swanberg ought to have said, and just moved on to the next project, chalking this misfire up to experience. That’s not how it works, though, so here’s a Christmas-themed movie smack in the middle of summer, doubling down on uselessness in the hope that it’ll somehow be perceived as a virtue. Tell it to the 2-year-old, pal.