Uncomfortable-silence auteur Joe Swanberg has made a career of testing how much falseness you can strip out and still have a movie. What if people on-screen talked like people off it, and they spent as much time looking at phones and laptops as you do, and if their moments of realization — this is the person I love! — work out about as well as the ones your friends dish about over drinks?
Now, with star-led hits like last year's Drinking Buddies and the new Happy Christmas, Swanberg is attempting something more challenging still: testing whether a movie with so much real life in it can still move a crowd. Drinking Buddies soared, but for all its beer-burped non sequiturs, it was powered by beautiful stars sparking up against one another, the most movie-proven engine there is. But those stars seemed of our Earth, even Olivia Wilde, whose career-best performance revealed not just the soul of a particular type of tomgirl but also just how poorly this actress has been served in other movies. Only by going deep-indie could she show us how much she can actually do.
Grand in its own shrugging way, Drinking Buddies even managed to commit a classic Hollywood sin. Its lovesick brew-bro Luke (Jake Johnson) chased dream-girl Wilde, neglecting his long-term love — and since she was no less a catch than Anna Kendrick, the Broadway/Pitch Perfect firecracker, he wasn't always easy to feel for. Kendrick played skittish and gently frumped-up, the subordinate in her relationship, but her metabolism dictated the comic beat of her every scene, even the ones in which her Jill had to shyly broach the topic of when she and Luke might agree to have the conversation about possibly setting a wedding date.
Luke was lucky to have her, but now Kendrick's lucky to have Swanberg. Happy Christmas is a collaborative showcase on the level with what he's previously worked up with Wilde and Greta Gerwig — superb performers, given the freedom to act human. This movie, too, thrums with Kendrick's flighty rhythms — and it, too, soars.
Happy Christmas is slighter even than Drinking Buddies, more original in its shape, and interested in observing a wider range of broke-ass creative types. This time, it's not about some beardo facing the problem of too many beauties — it's about Kendrick as one of those Generation Awkward types, who at 27 is only just starting to feel her habits and quirks coalesce into something like an adult self.
After a bad breakup, Jenny hightails it from Brooklyn to Chicago to crash in the wondrous tiki bar basement of the house her brother (Swanberg himself) shares with his wife (Melanie Lynskey) and toddler son (Swanberg's own kid.) Jenny's a bit self-involved, god-awful at being alone, and quick to start talking through her problems to anyone who may or may not be listening. She, too, is a particular type: the nervous, means-well narcissist always this close to growing into someone reliable.
Her first night in town, she hits a party with a pal played by Lena Dunham — so much for leaving New York! — and gets stupidly drunk: She passes out on the hostess's bed and plays dead whenever anyone tries to wake her. Dunham is all Midwestern nice in the first of her several hilarious scenes. Lugging Jenny from the party, she must say "I'm sorry" a dozen times, each with perfect, moment-specific sincerity.
Swanberg's process encourages such truthful comedy. He drafts outlines of each scene but lets his actors improvise the dialogue, which here results in many small moments that feel like life but just slightly better — as their characters form a wary three-way friendship, Kendrick, Dunham and Lynskey benefit from only having their unmemorable moments edited out.
The movie is packed with minor incident, all fresh, compelling and funny. It also boasts two lengthy scenes that are touched with something greater. The first involves the three women having a drink at that basement bar. Kelly, Lynskey's character, considers Jenny too irresponsible to be much help with the baby, but she would like to be able to trust her — and maybe to get back to work on her second novel, a project motherhood has delayed. Jenny and Carson, Dunham's character, both a couple of years younger, try to win Kelly over and loosen her up. (The only thing Jenny can think to say at first is "You're really pretty.") Eventually, the talk spills out, a lengthy, frank discussion about the joy and loneliness of being a stay-at-home mom, and of how it might feel to put your undomestic ambitions on hold for years at a time. There are more laughs and insights here than you'll get in a day's worth of blog reading on the same subjects.
The second scene is a queasy first date Jenny has with Kevin (Mark Webber), a pot dealer. She sits on his couch, not sure if it's a date or not — officially, she's there to buy drugs. He wanders out of our view to make her a drink, and Swanberg's camera stays on Kendrick, who fidgets, poses, starts to pull off her coat but then thinks better of it. Eventually, Kevin returns, and Jenny works up gumption enough to ask if maybe they should get high together. In the same long shot, they both light up, and slowly Kendrick's uptightness loosens. They laugh. They slump into one another. They get lost in the music, the things they say dissolving into meaninglessness. They make out.
It feels like watching life but not in some detached, dogmatic, strip-away-the-fun, indie-flick way. It's watching life's best and most revealing parts. There's a good chance you'll get a bit of a contact high.