Like Drinking Buddies, Joe Swanberg's Happy Christmas is a collaborative showcase for an established star. It thrums with Anna Kendrick's flighty rhythms as Drinking Buddies hummed with Olivia Wilde's cocksure cool -- where else but in Swanberg-land do we get to see these superb performers play human?
Kendrick plays 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 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 and god-awful at being alone; she's 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 and gets stupidly drunk: She passes out on the hostess' bed and plays dead whenever anyone tries to wake her up. 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's packed with minor incidents, all fresh, compelling, and funny. It also boasts two lengthy scenes that are touched with something greater.