Combustible Celluloid
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With: Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber, Lena Dunham, Joe Swanberg, Jude Swanberg
Written by: Joe Swanberg
Directed by: Joe Swanberg
MPAA Rating: R for language, drug use and some sexual content
Running Time: 88
Date: 07/25/2014

Happy Christmas (2014)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Do They Know It's 'Christmas'?

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Joe Swanberg seems to be something like the James Franco of the mumblecore set. He is only 32, and the IMDb lists over 100 projects to his name. He is credited on at least twenty projects each as an actor, director, writer, producer, and cinematographer, and nearly as many as an editor. These are all in the last ten years, since 2003. I would assume that many of these are short films and that many of them never saw general release.

He seems to have friends in horror, and he has appeared as an actor in You're Next, The Sacrament, and contributed a segment to V/H/S. As for his own films, it's hard to determine which ones were actually released and how wide, but I believe that Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007), which I did not see, was one of them. And definitely last year's wonderful Drinking Buddies.

All of this is me thinking out loud, I guess, and trying to get a handle on Swanberg as a filmmaker. In short, I think he works hard, but tries to make it look as if he's not working hard. His films seem improvisatory, relying on that specific kind of "mumblecore" dialogue that sounds highly stylized but also often cringe-inducing, and remarkably close to the way people actually speak. Characters appear to be working out their thoughts as they speak, rather than reciting something they've already concluded.

But if, out of those hundred or so titles, Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas are any indication, I'd say that Swanberg is someone to keep an eye on. I hope he settles down and focuses on something he truly believes in, rather than spreading himself too thin.

Happy Christmas focuses on a married couple somewhere in Chicago, Jeff (Swanberg) and Kelly (Melanie Lynskey, who gets to use her natural New Zealand accent). Swanberg's real-life baby plays their new baby Jude. Jeff's sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick) has just gone through a breakup and is coming to stay with her brother for a while, at Christmas time. The movie was apparently shot in Swanberg's own house, which came equipped with a vintage tiki lounge in the basement.

The movie has less of a plot than it does chunks of time that deal with characters. Kelly feels overwhelmed with the baby and would like to start her writing career again (she previously published one book). The presence of Jenny, who has no responsibilities and is free to get drunk and come home at all hours, makes things worse. Jeff lets Kelly use a rented but vacant office space to write during the day, and eventually Kelly -- and her wisecracking pal Carson (Lena Dunham) -- start hanging out with her and working on an erotic novel together.

Kelly also has a slow-burning romance with a local weed dealer/babysitter, Kevin (Mark Webber). (The movie doesn't seem alarmed at the combination of these two professions.) Swanberg's camera often just rolls as these characters fumble and stumble and try to connect with one another. It's sometimes frustrating, but it's often touching and funny. Ms. Lynskey once again proves that she's one of the cinema's greatest unsung treasures, and Ms. Kendrick proves that she's no fluke.

The movie is set at Christmastime; there are a few references to presents and a tree is on view, but it's not really a Christmas movie. Swanberg sprinkles the soundtrack with some obscure, hip pop songs that he'd either like to share with you or use to show off his eclectic tastes, but none of them are Christmas tunes.

It's also interesting that Swanberg has begun to concentrate on the plight of thirty-somethings, even though "mumblecore" has almost exclusively focused on youngsters fresh out of college. The transition works, and is most welcome. I hope that Swanberg keeps going and finds a way to make his filmmaking style work as the years roll on, examining the forties, fifties, and beyond.

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