Last year’s Drinking Buddies proved to be a modest indie success and Joe Swanberg’s first major breakthrough. Those impressed with Drinking Buddies are likely to find much to like in Swanberg’s follow-up and those who weren’t may find themselves disarmingly surprised by the warmth that exudes through the frames of Happy Christmas. Shot on 35mm film, Happy Christmas is certainly the prettiest film Swanberg has ever submitted - Ben Richardson’s vivid colors offer a nice contrast to the rural visages he captured in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Happy Christmas also functions as a logical continuation of what worked in Drinking Buddies - the improvisational acting and sense of community within its social circle - and improves upon it with better performances and a tighter sense of narrative direction. But in spite of the quantum leap in storytelling, performances, and production, Happy Christmas is plagued by the same problem that kept Drinking Buddies from ever registering as beyond slight: Joe Swanberg’s passionless direction.
The perceived lack of passion stems largely from Swanberg’s methodology. While filmmakers like Terrence Malick and Mike Leigh may be able to shoot their films without a traditional script, what they offer both during and after their productions - Malick’s visual lyricism and Leigh’s overarching social and political aims - all make for a sensuous and cinematic exercise. Swanberg’s observational approach, where he strips away any sense of self to the proceedings and simply allows for improvisational approach, presents some interesting images but never does it amount to much more beyond that. There’s an inherent cinematic and voyeuristic quality to both Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas that allows both films to work, but it’s in large part because Swanberg was able to cast capable actors in both.
In Happy Christmas, Swanberg casts himself along with Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Lena Dunham, and Mark Webber in what amounts to some modest but impressive riffing sessions. Some fair better than others though. In Kendrick’s second outing with the director, she struggles to carry the picture as lead, though both Dunham and Lynskey prove to be very capable supporting partners. The best scenes in Happy Christmas involve the three discussing motherhood and ascribed gender roles that actually suggest there’s some overlying thematic coherence to Swanberg’s method. But that suggestion eventually gets bogged down by messy and ill-conceived romantic and familial relationships.
There are enough nuggets of ideas in Happy Christmas to cover several pictures but by glossing over detail and depending so much on actors to present his thin concepts, we’re left with a pleasant but disappointingly simple exercise. Cut from the cloth of mumblecore cinema, Swanberg just feels regressive when compared to his contemporaries: the oddball vision of Andrew Bujalski Computer Chess, the comic elements of the Duplass brothers’ Cyrus, and the formalism of Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather all provoke greater reactions than what Swanberg’s been doing in Drinking Buddies or Happy Christmas.