It was touted as the first mainstream gay Christmas comedy. Unfortunately, this festive romcom is a turkey: BRIAN VINER reviews Happiest Season
Happiest Season (12)
Verdict: Hardly revolutionary
Hillbilly Elegy (15)
Verdict: Adams family misery
Despite the contortions required to pat oneself resoundingly on the back, everyone involved in making Happiest Season appears to have managed it, congratulating themselves for what they claim to be the first ‘mainstream gay Christmas romcom’.
But hold the party poppers.
Even if you get past the watery boiled sprout of a title, one so insipid and flavourless that it gives no hint of anything except possibly a roomful (or these days, a Zoomful) of executives saying ‘so what the heck shall we call it?’, Happiest Season is a bit of a turkey.
The world is more than ready for a great same-sex festive comedy, so it’s a shame the closet is still bare.
Everyone involved in making Happiest Season appears to have managed it, congratulating themselves for what they claim to be the first ‘mainstream gay Christmas romcom (pictured)
But it really is, even though there’s no doubting the calibre of this cast, with Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis playing the beautiful lesbian protagonists, and tip-top support from Mary Steenburgen, Aubrey Plaza and Alison Brie.
They, and Dan Levy (from the TV hit Schitt’s Creek), make the film watchable, even likeable in parts, but it feels like an opportunity missed.
Stewart plays Abby, who cohabits in the city with her lover Harper (Davis). When Harper invites Abby back to the smalltown family home for Christmas, she suggests that all might not be a bed of roses.
‘It’s five days,’ responds Abby. ‘How bad can it be?’
This is one of those hackneyed romcom lines that feels not so much written as lifted out of a drawer marked ‘generic’. Alas, there are many more.
When Harper’s father (Victor Garber) declares, ‘I can assure you this family has nothing to hide,’ we know, again, to expect the opposite.
Feeble romcom writing is basically a signposting exercise.
Anyway, not only is there no bed of roses at the family home, there’s no bed.
Not for Abby and Harper at any rate, because it emerges that Harper hasn’t yet come out to her conservative politician father and image-obsessed mother (Steenburgen).
She presents Abby as her sad orphan pal and some clunky farce ensues, which also embraces Harper’s intensely competitive relationship with her married older sister Sloane (Brie).
When Harper’s increasingly selfish behaviour as she tries to keep her sexuality hidden begins to drive away the girlfriend she professes to love with all her heart, a miserable Abby confides in her gay bestie John (Levy) and finds another ally in Harper’s high-school squeeze Riley (Plaza).
Riley, Sloane, Harper . . . this film certainly champions the strange American predilection for turning surnames into first names.
What it doesn’t really champion, regrettably, is the notion that same-sex relationships shouldn’t in this day and age be shrouded in embarrassment and shame.
Naturally, it attempts to leave us with precisely that message. It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that everything works out OK in the end, with the reactionary dad not so much learning a lesson as undergoing a root-and-branch personality change.
But by then the damage has been done by a film that, far from being exhilaratingly ground-breaking, is in fact enervatingly formulaic.
That is not a charge anyone can direct at Hillbilly Elegy, Ron Howard’s adaptation, scripted by Vanessa Taylor, of J.D. Vance’s 2016 so-called ‘misery memoir’ of the same name (pictured)
Director Clea DuVall and her co-writer Mary Holland (who plays Harper’s nervy other sister, Jane) have in effect crafted a second-rate Meet The Parents and squandered the chance to make the yuletide gay.
They are also, incidentally, guilty of that U.S. romcom cliché which decrees that everyone and everything should be soaked in a warm marinade of middle-class affluence.
That is not a charge anyone can direct at Hillbilly Elegy, Ron Howard’s adaptation, scripted by Vanessa Taylor, of J.D. Vance’s 2016 so-called ‘misery memoir’ of the same name.
All the same, the early reviews of this film have been overwhelmingly negative, and it could be that Howard has buffed up the grit of the story into a Hollywood sheen.
But I liked it and, contrary to some verdicts, considered its big-name stars, Glenn Close and Amy Adams, both well-cast.
The story hops continually between two time-frames — 1997 and 2011 — and is set mostly in the Ohio/Kentucky boondocks.
In the earlier phase, J.D. (Owen Asztalos) is a chubby adolescent being raised none too ably by his bright but promiscuous, drug-addicted mother Bev (Adams, boldly carrying some extra weight), with his hard-boiled grandmother (Close, boldly carrying the year’s worst perm) doing what she can to mitigate the damage.
Fourteen years later, J.D. (now played by Gabriel Basso) has overcome his hillbilly roots to reach Yale Law School and acquire a lovely girlfriend (Freida Pinto).
But his promising career and marital prospects are both endangered when a call comes from his sister: back in hicksville, his mother has overdosed.
This film is like The Waltons on crack.
- Happiest Season is widely available on streaming platforms. Hillbilly Elegy is on Netflix.
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