Real Funny, by David Bax
It’s hard to say when exactly it happened but at some point it seems to have been decided that a film only qualifies for the “comedy” tag if the first thing on every scene’s to-do list is to be funny. Maybe this was inspired by the success of the joke-machine style of movies like Anchorman. And the model still works from time to time. Look no further than the recent 22 Jump Street for proof. But the strictures of the genre’s definition as we’ve come to accept it has led to a disappearing middle ground for movies that want to be funny as hell while keeping both feet on the ground and striving for recognizably human emotions. Luckily, technology has led to more ease in film production and distribution while also striating the audience. It’s becoming more and more possible for specific kinds of films to locate the people who are specifically interested in them. Earlier this year, Gillian Robespierre’s brilliant Obvious Child struck a blow for the return of hilarity in realism. Now Joe Swanberg has come along with Happy Christmas, a fantastically funny, down to earth and moving film that inspires hope that we may be on the verge of a comedy groundswell.
Anna Kendrick stars as Jenny. Before we meet her, though, we are introduced to her older brother, Jeff (Swanberg), his wife, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and their two-year-old son, Jude (Swanberg’s real-life kid, who is so consistently funny that it’s hard to believe he’s not doing it on purpose). Jenny has recently left a relationship and a job in an unnamed city and is coming to Chicago to live with Jeff for a bit and get her shit together. There’s not much more to the premise than that, nor does there need to be. The conflict comes when we realize just how not together Jenny’s shit is. Within hours of arriving in Chicago, she’s gotten herself to a nonverbal, immobile state of drunkenness and rendered herself incapable of following through on her promise to babysit Jude.
If this smells a bit of You, Me and Dupree, don’t despair. Jenny’s not some lovable fuck-up but the real-life kind. Her pain is as palpable as her inability to deal with it in any way that comes close to responsibility or wisdom. Just as apparent is Jeff and company’s mix of frustration and affection, especially because Kendrick’s empathetic performance inspires the same emotions in the audience. And if you’re worried that Jenny will end up a Candide-style hapless optimist who improves the lives of all in her path, Swanberg covers that fear as well by shrewdly acknowledging the possibility then deflating it when Jenny’s attempts to help Kelly write a novel don’t go as quickly or easily as Jenny assumed.
Swanberg’s small cast, which also includes Lena Dunham as Jenny’s friend and Kendrick’s Scott Pilgrim co-star Mark Webber as the romantic interest, means that even with a brief running time of 78 minutes, everyone gets to shine. That’s just what they do, too. Happy Christmas consists almost entirely of scenes featuring people who are friends and family sitting around and talking, so it’s a good thing that it feels exactly like that’s what’s happening. The comfort the actors have with one another leads to the best kind of improvisational ease. The movie is funny not because the performers are trying to one-up each other with every riff but because they genuinely seem to be having a good time. Stay through the end credits for an extended take of Kendrick, Lynskey and Dunham, all in character, bouncing around ideas for a bodice-ripping romance novel.
Kendrick and Swanberg are particularly convincing as siblings. It helps that Jeff’s house is furnished and decorated in such a thoroughly outdated manner that, were it not for the laptops and smartphones, we might think the brother and sister had tim- traveled back to their childhood. The Super-16 photography only adds to the cozy home movie feel. Still, it’s mostly in the performances. The ecstatic but scandalized look on Jenny’s face when Jeff shows interest in getting high with her says most of what we need to know about their lifelong relationship.
Elitist prigs like Christopher Nolan can bemoan the decline of the theatrical experience all they want in the name of purism. But if all I get for struggling through the expensive, ad-soaked assault of going to a movie theater is desperate and hollow fare like Neighbors, I’ll stay at home. That’s where I can call up Happy Christmas by way of VOD. A personal, hilarious and well-made work of art piped straight to me on my couch; if that’s the form that the rescue of the modern film comedy is going to take, I refuse to complain.