For this critic, the pop artist whose voice and music cut quickest to the heart is George Michael. If there’s an emotion that can be felt, then Michael captured it in a song that he likely composed, produced, then sang with perfect pitch and phrasing, while sporting a giant hoop earring.
The late Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou might have been, as Emilia Clarke’s rom-com heroine Kate declares in Last Christmas (★★★½☆), “misunderstood and under-appreciated,” but the singer-songwriter gets due love and respect in the film, which takes its title and storyline from the 1984 hit that Michael wrote and produced as half of the English pop duo Wham!.
“Last Christmas” is one of many heartfelt George Michael tunes to grace the London-set romance, directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids). From “Heal the Pain” to “Freedom! ’90” to “Everything She Wants,” Michael’s music provides a well-curated soundtrack to the love story between Kate and mystery man Tom, played with a charming, if one-note, niceness by Crazy, Rich, Asians heartthrob Henry Golding.
An aspiring singer, Kate works as a customer service elf at the most Christmassy of Christmas shops in Covent Garden, and sees herself as being like George, misunderstood and under-appreciated. She’s an appealing mess, of the bumbling, irresponsible sort who can only manage to function and still look like a million bucks in a romantic comedy that might also supply her with a dashing admirer ever-ready to come to her aid. Toothsome Tom seems too good to be true, but, of course, he harbors secrets. So does Kate, although her secret is harmless enough: part of the reason she’s so discombobulated is that she’s recovering from a catastrophic illness.
His and her hidden truths take their time tumbling out, delayed by frustratingly contrived plotting. However, the script, by Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings, does hold its share of touching surprises. The film also provides standout supporting roles for Thompson, as Kate’s mom Petra, a refugee of the former Yugoslavia who — to the amusement of everyone but her family — thrives on drama, and for Golding’s Crazy, Rich costar Michelle Yeoh as Santa, the hilariously strict but not heartless owner of the Yuletide Christmas shop.
It’s amazing to consider that Yeoh, such a smooth comic presence here, was known early in her career purely as an action hero. Yet, Santa swoons for her own mysterious stranger as readily as Kate does for Tom. Last Christmas finds time to gift-wrap romance for the entire ensemble, including Kate’s lesbian big sis Marta (Lydia Leonard), while throwing in the extra stocking stuffers of scathing Brexit commentary, a Patti LuPone cameo, and a new, unreleased George Michael track, “This Is How (We Want You to Get High),” that adds to the legacy of an artist who gave his heart in every song.
Last Christmas is rated PG-13, and opens in theaters everywhere on Friday, Nov. 8. Visit www.fandango.com.