This week brings two movies about a closeted gay character who returns home with a longtime romantic partner for a major family gathering, but whereas the period-piece drama “Uncle Frank” is a serious and heart-wrenching work, the modern-day romantic comedy “Happiest Season” has a somewhat dated feel while eschewing subtlety for witty barbs, slapstick humor and the easy sentimentality of a Hallmark Movie. It’s the movie equivalent of one of those specialty caffeinated holiday drinks like a Toasted White Chocolate Mocha or a Chestnut Praline Latte — a guilty pleasure filled with sweetness and warmth, but also an abundance of empty calories.
Kristen Stewart’s Abby and Mackenzie Davis’ Harper are a happily united couple living in Pittsburgh, where Abby is working on her doctorate in art history while Harper writes political pieces for the Post-Gazette. After too many adult beverages, Harper impulsively invites Abby to spend Christmas with Harper’s family in the Bedford Falls-esque town of Grove City. Even though Abby isn’t a fan of the holidays — too many painful memories associated with the loss of her parents when she was 19 — she agrees to come along and even decides this will be the perfect setting for her to propose to Harper. Why, Abby is even going to ask Harper’s father for permission, much to the horror of her best friend John (Daniel Levy), who quips, “Asking her dad for his blessing? Way to stick it to the patriarchy!”
Dan Levy was a revelation in “Schitt’s Creek” and he brings that same scene-stealing brilliance to this role, but he’s basically playing the Wisecracking Gay Friend With No Life of His Own stereotype that was so expertly parodied by Brandon Scott Jones in the rom-com spoof “Isn’t It Romantic.” The character of John seems to have no other purpose other than to be there for Abby and comment on HER life.
It’s not until Abby and Harper hit the road that Harper drops a bombshell: Her family doesn’t know she’s gay and thinks Abby is Harper’s straight friend who has no place else to go because she’s an “orphan,” which is an odd way to describe someone who is about 30. Cue the predictable sequences of Abby and Harper consigned to separate bedrooms in the stately family manor and sneaking about in the middle of the night for dangerous hookups, because what if Harper’s family finds out, oh nooooooo!
Victor Garber plays Harper’s image-conscious, sitcom-deep father, Ted, a city councilman eyeing a run for mayor, and Mary Steenburgen is her mother, Tipper, an ambitious political spouse who looks at every family moment as a potential Instagram post to burnish the all-American image. Alison Brie is Harper’s tightly wound sister Sloane, who is married and has two children with borderline sociopathic tendencies, and Mary Holland (who co-wrote the script with director Clea DuVall) is the seemingly hopeless sister Jane, who tries WAY too hard to please her father. The dynamic between the siblings is abrasive, competitive and at times downright toxic; they’ve been competing for their father’s approval since they were children. When simmering tensions finally reach the boiling point, it’s played out in a comedically tone-deaf fashion that robs the moment of anything approaching emotional truth.
Along the way, we also meet Harper’s old boyfriend, a dreamy slice of white bread named Connor (Jake McDorman), who still carries a torch for Harper and has no idea she’s gay, and Harper’s former girlfriend, Riley (Aubrey Plaza), who was dumped in cruel fashion by Harper when rumors circulated about them having a romance.
This is perhaps the biggest problem with “The Happiest Season”: Harper consistently comes across as self-centered and oblivious to the hurt she causes by her actions, or in some cases, inaction. In fact, the budding friendship between Abby and Riley had me rooting for those two to get together, as they seem a better match than Abby and Harper. Writer-director DuVall is a talented filmmaker and she keeps the mostly superficial story humming along at an entertaining pace, and the cast is terrific and gets the maximum value out of the material. We know from the get-go “Happiest Season” will eventually wrap things up in a convenient and tidy bow, but it’s an uneven trip over the river and through the woods before everyone realizes it truly is a wonderful life after all.