“Happiest Season” promises to “make the yuletide gay” as Hulu’s new streaming Christmas rom-com featuring LGBT themes.
And while it boasts an impressive comedic ensemble, featuring Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Dan Levy, Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen, the movie’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness.
“Happiest Season” is a very traditional, formulaic Christmas movie. Besides featuring lesbian characters as the leads, this movie is one you’ve seen again and again. The zany, manic energy and sometimes broad humor will be comforting to many but tiresome for some who long for a more inventive script.
But I think this was all a calculated decision by actor-turned-director Clea Duvall (you might remember her as Catherine’s Secret Service girlfriend on “Veep” and many teen movies in the 1990s such as “The Faculty”) in her second feature. Duvall is out herself and you can sense a genuine love for Christmas movies in her script, which she co-wrote with Mary Holland, a comedian she previously worked with on “Veep.” In fact, I think it was the right move to put something different and new in a very familiar vehicle.
The movie begins with Davis drunkenly asking her girlfriend Stewart to come meet her parents for Christmas. Yes, she actually says the line, “I know you don’t like Christmas because your parents died around then,” but it’s a formulaic movie and sometimes lines of exposition are needed.
Stewart plans to proposed on Christmas morning but as they’re driving to the house, Davis admits that she never actually came out to her parents and she needs Stewart to just pretend to be her roommate for the next few days.
Davis’s conservative parents (politics are never mentioned but the word traditional is used a lot) don’t make the next few days easy on Stewart. Steenburgen is obsessed with public image as Garber is preparing for a run for mayor. Davis, the favorite among her parents, butts heads with her competitive sister played by Brie, while Holland, who plays the strangely odd sister in addition to co-writing the script, has some of the funniest lines in the movie.
In situations that remind you of “Meet the Parents” or “The Family Stone,” everything seems to wrong for Stewart even as she tries to impress the parents. Some situations become unbelievable, but, again, this is a formulaic Christmas comedy. That will happen.
Stewart begins to feel isolated and jealous as Davis ignores her during the family visit and even spends a lot of time with her high school boyfriend. Viewers begin to wonder why Stewart would even want to be with someone who ignores her when she feels most vulnerable.
Eventually stewart grabs a drink to commiserate with Davis’s ex-girlfriend, played with charm by Audrey Plaza. The chemistry between the two would make some viewers wish that the two leads don’t get together in the end, but unfortunately there are no big surprises in this movie.
Just when it looks like the romantic leads will never get together, Dan Levy gives a speech as the gay best friends to make the movies themes/morals as clear as day. The parents have a change of heart rather quickly and Davis gives a heartfelt apology. It all wraps up the conflict in a few minutes in a all-too-convenient way. I’d actually feel worse about spoiling the plot but you can see it all coming a mile away.
Despite being very by-the-numbers, there are quite a few laugh out loud scenes, mostly due the dedication of the talented supporting cast. Davis and Stewart do a fine job, but they’re the least interesting part of this movie and audiences will find themselves attached to the side characters rather than the leads. Holland and Levy steal almost every scene they are in. We will likely see a Awkafina or Rebel Wilson-style career boost for both of them (yes I know Levy is already a star of the small screen from “Schitt’s Creek” but movie producers will be calling him more frequently). There’s a brief but hilarious scene featuring Timothy Simons (Jonah Ryan on “Veep”) and Lauren Lapkus (“The Wrong Missy”) as overly aggressive mall security guards.
Audiences who are strongly opposed to LGBT relationships will obviously not like this movie. But the movie itself could win over some who are slightly uncomfortable. There’s some kissing but no graphic sex scenes. It’s PG-13 and it’s vulgar. While Garber plays a politician, the words Democrat or Republican are never mentioned and no real-life elected officials are name-dropped. It’s very accessible for a wide audience.
While the LGBT romance drives the story, there are times when you forget that the lead characters are gay and just think of this movie as a traditional romantic comedy. And isn’t that a good thing? A movie can be authentic without being over the top or patronizing. LGBT characters don’t have to “too straight” or “too gay,” they can just be themselves.