January 23, 2014



Joe Swanberg, the director, writer and co-star of HAPPY CHRISTMAS, which premiered at Sundance earlier this week, makes Woody Allen look lazy.  He’s had something like a dozen features to his credit since the start of the decade, and that doesn’t include his shorts and contributions to compilations like V/H/S, to say nothing of the projects he producers or acts in without directing.  Despite that titanic output, Swanberg isn’t particularly known outside the indie universe because almost everything he’s done falls under the rubric of “mumblecore,” that subgenre of micro-budgets and improvised scripts performed by friends of the filmmaker that often feel more like acting exercises than full-blown movies.  Last year, Swanberg dipped a toe (as have other mumblecorers like the Duplass brothers and Lynn Shelton) into slicker, more star- and narrative-driven work with the very entertaining Drinking Buddies.

Happy Christmas is a bit of a hybrid, featuring actors like Anna Kendrick (who was also in Drinking Buddies)  and Melanie Lynsky, but more of a situation than a plot.  (The cast also includes Lena Dunham, whose own work is too polished and structured to really qualify as mumblecore.)  Running just 76 minutes, it’s about the effect that Jenny (Kendrick) has on the family of her older brother Jeff (Swanberg) and his wife Kelly (Lynsky) when she moves into the basement of their Chicago home after her latest relationship breaks up.  Jenny is good-hearted, but something of a hurricane; she lights a spark in Kelly that had been dim since she gave birth 2 years earlier, inspiring her to go back to her writing (and churn out an erotic romance novel to make some money), but she’s also liable to pass out in someone’s bed when her friend Carson (Dunham) takes her to a party, and she carelessly nearly sets Jeff and Kelly’s house on fire.  Jeff ‘s attitude toward his sister is mostly calm tolerance, and for a while, that causes tensions in his marriage. Meanwhile, Jenny also starts a relationship with the couple’s babysitter/dealer (Mark Webber).

It’s an interesting change-of-pace role for Kendrick, who more often plays put-together characters and even control freaks (if Hollywood was doing a version of this story, she’d be playing Kelly), and she seems to relish the chance at being emotionally uneven and out of control.  The best scenes in Happy Christmas are hers with Lynsky, as the two women gradually start to bond.  Kendrick and Swanberg also have a fun scene together getting stoned.  (In the random synchronicity that comes from seeing movies back-to-back at film festivals, it’s not unlike a few of the scenes between Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader in The Skeleton Twins).  Other than that, though, there’s not much substance here.  Jeff and Kelly’s 2-year old is played by Joe Swanberg’s real-life son, and while he has an adorable little boy, there are times when the camera lingers on his hijinks enough so that you can imagine what an evening of Swanberg home movies would be like.  A lot of scenes ramble, and the Jenny/dealer relationship drifts–which of course is what real relationships do, but outsiders don’t have to watch them do it.

Happy Christmas is brief enough so that it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it has its share of sharp, recognizable moments and some good acting.  It’s disposable, though, without the weight that narrative and structure can provide.  It feels like it was made to fill a gap in the filmmaker’s busy schedule.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."