Joe Swanberg continues to rise through the ranks of independent film directors with his follow-up to 2013's well-received Drinking Buddies. This time, instead of focusing on the impossibility of male-female friendships, Swanberg centers his plot around the neurosis brought forth by the appearance of family. Playing the lead character, Jeff, Swanberg falls somewhat short in an acting capacity, which is only part of what makes this film a pale comparison to Drinking Buddies.
After breaking up with her boyfriend, the reasons behind which remain nebulous, Jenny (Anna Kendrick, one of those inexplicably annoying actresses you can't pinpoint exactly why you dislike) takes advantage of the kindness of her brother, Jeff (Swanberg), who offers her his basement in Chicago. Jeff's wife, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey, who you may recognize as the Jaclyn Smith-wearing, baby-toting in a bar woman in Sweet Home Alabama), becomes averse to Jenny after she gets trashed on her first night staying with them. Upon attending a party with her friend, Carson (the always blah Lena Dunham), Jenny gets out of control with her drinking and weed-smoking, prompting her to stubbornly pass out on the hostess' bed.
Concerned about her behavior, Kelly feels reluctant about letting her watch Jude (Joe Swanberg's real life baby of the same name), their two-year-old son. Jenny, who was supposed to watch Jude the morning after her party, ends up being too hungover to do so, leading Kelly to call their former basement resident, Kevin (Mark Webber of Snow Day fame), to care for her son while she goes to brunch. Jenny awakens to find Kevin in the living room, and the three end up going to the park together. When Kelly returns, Kevin takes off, but not before getting Jenny's number so he can "lend her some DVDs"--a.k.a. sell her pot when she needs it. Jeff urges Kelly to give Jenny another chance to prove that her fuck-up was a one-time instance, and so, with no mask of certainty, Kelly leaves Jenny alone with Jude while she runs some errands.
After successfully keeping Jude alive for a few hours, Jenny and Carson pour themselves some drinks from the tiki bar in the basement and invite Kelly to join them. A few sips of beer later, Kelly confesses to feeling a tinge of resentment toward Jeff because she's the one who has to watch Jude all the time, leaving her no opportunity for writing (she had previously written one novel). Jenny and Carson encourage Kelly to keep writing and convince her that she can "have it all."
Filled with a renewed sense of hope for her career's potential as a result of this conversation, Kelly asks Jeff for the Christmas present of being able to go somewhere and write in private. Jeff is happy to oblige, offering up his empty production office as a quiet place for her to work. In the meantime, Jenny keeps herself busy by fucking with Kevin's head. Clearly the one who's more into it, Kevin treats her well and buys her a gift for the holiday, though ultimately ends up pissing her off anyway because he won't come home with her on Christmas Eve (he wants to, but has to wake up early to go to his mother's house the next day--proving that a mother always trumps a girlfriend in these Oedipal times). With her self-esteem in a shaky state after being what she perceives as rejected, she goes back to the basement and proceeds to drink and smoke weed. In this altered state, she puts a frozen pizza in the oven and forgets about it. About an hour later, the house is filled with smoke, setting off the alarm and waking up everyone else.
Jenny's selfishness and lack of concern is, presumably, supposed to be fascinating to the audience, but, for the most part, it's just vexatious. The main issue with Happy Christmas is how hard Swanberg tries to make his characters seem complex through simplicity, but with dialogue that consists primarily of "like" and "sorry," becoming engaged is a somewhat difficult feat.