“That Time of Year” refers to Christmas, and it is a given in Danish thesp Paprika Steen’s third directorial feature that the togetherness holidays force on us are a holy pain in the arse, with or without Baby Jesus. That “Families are the best… and the worst!” stance feels more than a bit pat in a dramedy whose crises and insufferable behaviors have a well-made-play calculation even as they’re meant to capture emotional messiness. Nevertheless, this mix of sour comedy and default sentimentality should have some appeal in Scandinavia, where the actors’ familiarity will be a lure. Farther afield, it may stir lesser interest as a foreign-language piece too mainstream, and not original or subtle enough, for art-house audiences.
The theatrical air shouldn’t surprise, as this is the first original feature screenplay for well-established Danish playwright Jakob Weis. Sooner or later, “That Time of Year” will probably make its way to the stage — and in truth, that is where it belongs.
Katrine (Steen) is nervous as usual about hosting her annual family Christmas Eve dinner, though unflappable husband Mads (Jacob Lohmann) is a steadying influence. Not only must they prepare an elaborate meal for 13, but teenage daughter Maria (Fanny Leander Bornedal) is having a major snit fit for reasons as yet unknown, and there’s the last-minute inclusion of Katrine’s sister Patricia (Patricia Schumann), who’s just out of rehab again and sure to discomfort the others. Not that this lot need much help in that regard: Grandparents Gunna (Karen-Lise Mynster) and Poul (Lars Knutzon), long bitterly divorced, are sure to draw everyone else into their never-ending spat.
Even before the entire clan gathers at Katrine and Mads’ place, there’s a mandatory initial expedition to a church where recently ordained third sister Barbara (Sofie Grobel) is giving her first sermon — one much-interrupted by Adam (Sofus Sondergaard Mikkelsen), her hyperactive nightmare of a son by pompous author spouse Torben (Lars Brygmann). Barbara and Katrine are themselves locked into some long-simmering sibling rivalry, one bone of contention being their different past treatment of problematic Barbara. When the latter finally shows up, she complicates matters yet further by bringing along the husband nobody knew she had (Jakob Randrup) and his angelic young daughter by another woman (Troja Reppien Trovatten).
As this sincere attempt to have a wholesome, traditional holiday gathering devolves into drunken fights and inappropriate revelations, among the few who manage to stay outside of the fray are the hosts’ easygoing younger child Jens-Peter (Mikas Maximus Dalhoff Christiansen) and Mads’ own innocuous, generally-ignored parents (Bodil Lassen, Hans Holtegaard).
The parade of family dysfunctions keeps “That Time of Year” entertaining without actually lending it more than soap-operatic depth. It’s not “Surviving Christmas,” yet there’s a certain air of cheap, sitcom-ish cynicism to the proceedings that isn’t particularly funny, and which undermines the film’s occasional shift towards straight-faced drama. Its seriocomic mix might seem less artificial onstage, where the lack of looming close-ups wouldn’t make everything seem quite so broad.
The cast includes numerous formidable talents, not least Steen herself. But they’re all stuck trying to fill out two-dimensional roles in a directorial package heavier on generic professional gloss than conviction. The soundtrack of Yuletide standards by Elvis, Sinatra, Eddy Arnold, Gene Autry, Harry Belafonte et al. adds a layer of trite irony that, like so much else here, isn’t nearly as witty or surprising as it wants us to believe.