It’s one thing that a film has two characters that fall in love and then only later face the fact that they come from two very different cultures, and it’s a completely different thing when that’s all we see in a movie, from the very beginning till the very end. Christmas as Usual, written and directed by Petter Holmsen, is a simple (bordering on simplistic) dramedy where Thea and Jashan, two people from very different cultural backgrounds, go together on a trip to Norway to meet Thea’s family for Christmas. There are no prizes for guessing what happens next. The Norwegian traditions and culture become a bit of a problem for the Indian-origin Jashan, and the relationship is tested.
From the moment the film begins, it begins to set us up to have low expectations for what’s coming. The pitch of the performances and the writing immediately want us to be on board with the idea that this is a movie about ordinary moments that sometimes have the power to make or break a relationship. Jashan, the awkward boyfriend, proposes to Thea, the calmer of the two, and she is shown to have inherent doubts about whether the relationship will work, yet she says yes. That’s the first issue with the movie. As we won’t see almost any of Jashan’s cultural side of things, his family and relatives from India and whatnot, the focus is on Thea to introduce him (and us) to Norwegian culture. So the slight apprehension she has about accepting Jashan as a life partner because of the cultural difference seems fair. It’s a nice way to make us want to know more about how Christmas is celebrated in Norway, amidst the snowy, sub-zero terrain of the country. And I was quite on board to get into the messy family dynamics and the anxiety of breaking the news of the engagement to the family, which consisted of mom Anne, brother Simen, and sister-in-law Hildegunn. But the movie remains stuck on the awkward interactions that one might expect between Thea’s family and Jashan. It never has anything else to go any further. There is no foray into sorting out an uncomfortable issue between the mother and daughter, nor do the brother and his family add to any real conflict.
The choice may be understandable if the film wanted to remain ‘authentic’ (a word I grew quite indifferent to during the course of the film), but its emphasis on showcasing Jashan as just the awkward Indian man who seemed as if he had left his gray matter behind in his home country. Then it became as if the film was aspiring to be a Judd Apatow-esque comedy, but it didn’t go anywhere in that direction as well. The film began by trying to find what it thought would be relatable humor, like Anne hugging the Norwegian taxi driver, thinking him to be Thea’s friend, while Jashan was taking the bags out of the trunk. I think Christmas as Usual does succeed in finding those beats, but there is not much to go on. The ‘usual’ in the film becomes Anne mispronouncing Jashan’s name as Shazam ad-nauseum, and the film doesn’t really present the characters as unlikable as well, as if saying that these are all organic cute mistakes and not done out of the shock of seeing Thea with an Indian guy. There was a moment where I thought Jashan would continue the joke with the names after finding that Simen rhymed with ‘demon’. I’m grateful that nothing of that sort happened. Or perhaps disappointed that the awkward Indian guy, who seemed to be modeled on American sitcoms, did not take the ultra-juvenile path to get back at Thea’s family. That could have brought some ‘spunk’ to this film.
The movie plays on like it has some hidden extra time in its runtime where it would engage us. The four days until Christmas are marked by four different activities that showcase what Norwegians do to celebrate the festive period. Jashan, as expected, spoils all of them, sometimes just with his sheer presence, like when he catches a cold after getting into the ice bath. Let me talk about the one thing that bothered me throughout the whole film: the leads’ performances. Ida Ursin-Holm as Thea and Kanan Gill as Jashan don’t seem to be a couple. I’m not pointing out Thea’s doubts as being the cause of the distance, but Jashan’s lack of hurt during some parts of the film, where it was obvious that Thea wasn’t sure about the relationship, So in essence, they had decided to break the news to the family without embracing the role of characters that are madly in love. It is interesting to see this dynamic on paper, but in the film, the distance between the couple—even a little shred of doubt—is enough to take the steam out of the movie. It doesn’t make the characters seem desperate enough, like they so eagerly want to be together but realize that they are way too different on every turn. And without this ‘battery,’ the film just feels like an exploration and justification of why multiculturalism doesn’t work without the lubrication of empathy and the willingness to accept different points of view.
Christmas as Usual is neither courageous enough to be bombastic nor does it explore the characters well enough. It does have an ultra-cliche ‘airport ending’ but I just about did a double take figuring out how we got there. The Christmas celebrations are nicely done, and the art department does a great job adding to the beauty of the set. The film’s strength was that it had gotten us to a point where some real risks could have been taken, but then, with the forced gags and inorganic approach to the characters, its strength ultimately turned into a weakness. If you are a Kanan Gill fan, stick to watching his stand-up specials, where he gets to be the king of comedy, and not here, where he doesn’t seem to have an emotional handle on his character.