Sometimes when you get a present, you have to tear through a lot of wrapping paper to get to the gift.
The blaring error in this film’s script, by Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings, is that words come first and visuals second. Characters’ inner thoughts, plot points, points-of-view, sentiments and emotions are more apt to be expressed verbally, not visually.
That strategy works better for plays and books. A lens can capture a tear, grimace, or uncomfortableness. Why not use it? Instead, for an hour or so, the characters talk incessantly—tit-for-tat. It’s annoying. Excessive. Distracting. Coupled with director Paul Feig’s (Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters) inability to add any style to the footage, some viewers will sit waiting impatiently for the film to find its footing.
Most of what’s on view looks like it was shot on a backlot, with aimless extras meandering about. The rooms, stores and buildings look fake (production designer Gary Freeman), ditto the sets (set design Raffaella Giovannetti). Nothing seems real, and no one seems to care that it is so noticeable. The characters are plopped down in this artificial environment, and it’s like you’re watching a talented cast skillfully go through an acting exercise, but you’re never pulled into their story.
Kate (Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones) is a bit of a twentysomething misfit who lives and works in London. Too independent to still live with her mom (Emma Thompson) and dad, who are Eastern European immigrants. Too clumsy and discourteous to continue couch-suffering with friends. Too unlucky to consistently count on shagging men on one-night stands for a place to sleep.
Her only stability is a job she has in a small Christmas ornament store owned by a proprietor (Michelle Yeoh) who is endlessly forgiving. So tolerant that when the aspiring actress/worker runs out for auditions, her boss turns a blind eye.
Kate transports all her belongings around in a carry-on suitcase. She’s had serious health issues and is flighty and directionless. She gets a grasp on reality the day she meets a handsome mystery man, Tom (Henry Golding, Crazy Rich Asians). She’s eager to do him. He plays hard to get. It’s as if he has a secret.
The tedious romantic comedy setup goes on and on. Nothing makes sense until Kate and Tom meet. Even as their courtship develops, the chattering continues. It’s a relationship that grows increasingly frustrating to watch. Even as the film remains annoying, flat and uneventful, there is something in the back of your head that says, “Maybe this can all lead to something fulfilling.” And it does. That’s the hidden value in the screenplay by Thompson and Kimmings. There’s a point to it. But you have to wait.
It would take a comic actress genius to pull off Kate’s role. Clarke is not that person. Good actress yes. Romantic comedy actress, not so much. Thompson as her Croatian mother has an accent that is affected at best. The supporting cast, especially Yeoh, fills in the cracks admirably. Golding is the one actor who stands above the rest. He’s debonair, charming and photogenic. The kind of leading man rom/com audiences love. If Daniel Craig stops playing James Bond, he should pass the torch to Golding—who might overshadow his predecessor.
It’s not that the choices that Paul Feig makes as a director are awful. It’s more that this genre is above his pay grade. Bridesmaids was an absolutely hysterical film. But romantic comedy is a different beast. Subtleties, nuances, charm, stolen moments. If you can’t capture these elements, you can’t create a film that consistently touches the heart. Writer/director Richard Curtis showed his deftness for the genre with Love Actually. Feig should have studied that movie religiously before embarking on this one.
Before the climax, there is one very brief scene that stands out for its stark simplicity. It’s when the couple is having one of their few intimate moments. Tom reaches out to the babbling Kate and touches a scar on her body. It’s like all the voices, noise and music (George Michael songs are played throughout) stop for a nanosecond. The world is completely still. This is magic. There is more power in this instant than nearly the entire film.
Fortunately, the narrative, acting, direction and emotions build up to a highpoint that saves the movie. This apex adds a fourth dimension. It will leave audiences shocked, surprised and tearing up. It’s a gem. From then on, a heartfelt feeling takes over and the holiday spirit arrives. It is as wondrous as it is winsome and mystical.
Be patient. Sit through the barrage of conversations, themes about xenophobia, family dynamics, friendships and acceptance. All these distractions become part of a much bigger picture that will warm viewers’ hearts. It’s worth the wait. It’s a gift.