Even with charmers Emma Roberts and Luke Bracey at its center, this dyspeptic rom-com indulges too many of the genre's conventions to offer viewers a new look on love.
- ❤️ Emma Roberts is appealing as a neurotic young woman trying to escape her mother's obsessive matchmaking.
- ❤️ The movie's potty-mouthed take on singlehood gives it a much-needed adult edge.
- ❤️ It only means so much for the writer and director to acknowledge rom-com cliches if they aren't willing to subvert a few of them.
- ❤️ Bracey is handsome and charming as Jackson, but lacks the sincerity to make audiences believe his character's vulnerability.
In Holidate, two romance-averse singles strike a bargain to be each other’s companion for a year’s worth of holidays - a good premise for a romantic comedy well-versed in observing the genre’s tropes, but less compelling when it’s unwilling, or uninterested in subverting them. Emma Roberts and Luke Bracey are appealing enough as the misanthropic couple, but a script by Tiffany Paulsen (Nancy Drew) spends too much time capitulating to the same conventions it’s eager to point out as clichés to transcend them by the time we’ve decided we want this cranky pair to fall for one another.
Roberts (Scream 4) plays Sloane, an online contractor still reeling from the loss of her relationship with a hunky Frenchman named Luc (Julien Marlon Samani). After a particularly brutal Christmas Eve grilling from her mother Elaine (Frances Fisher) and the live engagement of her brother York Jake Manley) to his very new girlfriend Liz (Cynthy Wu), Sloane contemplates swearing off holidays altogether. But when she crosses paths with Jackson (Bracey) in a department store returns line and they swap relationship horror stories, they decide to attend a posh New Year’s party together as friends. Enjoying the experience without feeling the pressure of a deeper connection, Sloane and Jackson make a tentative pact to be each other’s Plus One for any upcoming holidays.
Since Sloane’s aunt Susan (Kristen Chenoweth) has brought a “holidate” to family gatherings for years, her mother Elaine is suspicious of the duo’s deal, and continues to try and set her up with eligible bachelors like the single doctor (Manish Dayal) who moves in next door. But when Sloane runs into her ex Luc and he’s got a pretty young girlfriend with him, she decides that dating at a distance with Jackson is safer than getting her heart broken by a philandering Frenchman. But even as they provide each other a buffer from the pain (or deeper commitment) they claim they’re trying to avoid, Sloane and Jackson begin to grow comfortable with the routine of their dates, forcing them to decide whether their “holidate pact” is protecting them from the discomfort of singlehood, or keeping them from recognizing the importance of a happy relationship that’s effectively staring them in the face.
The recent romantic comedy renaissance that started with Crazy Rich Asians has been a net positive like the success of Scream was a net positive for slasher movies, keeping a genre going while offering a reminder that there are different ways to tweak the conventions that first made a certain kind of story popular. I’m not sure every one of the rom-coms since then has even tried to revamp those rhythms, but where a movie like Holidate fails is in acknowledging all of the clichés that got to be so hacky and tiresome and then doing pretty much nothing at all to turn them upside down, forge a new path, or otherwise transform audience expectations. Notwithstanding the fact that this movie features a Dirty Dancing-inspired fantasy sequence nine years after Crazy, Stupid, Love made fun of the exact same fantasy in a much smarter way, there are simply too many out-loud verbalizations of the “stuff that always happens” in romantic comedies in Holidate that its script decides to effectively duplicate without adding a twist or really even an acknowledgment that it’s doing itself.
Of writer-executive producer Paulsen’s credits, I’m a little surprised one isn’t the pessimistic comedy-drama You’re The Worst, although that show certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on stories about people vehemently claiming to hate romance who fall reluctantly into an otherwise conventional relationship. But even if Holidate is unwilling to truly interrogate these characters’ commitment issues or self-destructive tendencies, it blandly uses a lot of traditional sitcom-level fodder not just in terms of plot but character that becomes a distraction from what at least should be a pleasantly diverting date movie, and to a lesser extent a holiday movie for folks looking to expand that particular canon. Quite frankly, given how obsessed Sloane’s mother is with her daughter’s romantic status (and kinda every one of her children’s life choices), it almost feels like that’s the relationship that needs to be examined a little bit more closely.
Instead, Paulsen and director John Whitesell (Malibu’s Most Wanted) flirt with a lot of ideas at arm’s length in exactly the way that Sloane and Jackson initially do with each other. And even if the movie isn’t without charm - Roberts is likeable enough to counterbalance the character’s debilitating neuroses even when Bracey lacks the sincerity to make believable Jackson’s resistance to a relationship with a very attractive woman he gets along extremely well with - it leans into too many of the clichés that it admits it knows and thinks that being snarky about them is enough to distract audiences from the inevitability of a very predictable sequence of events. (That said, there is something undeniably amusing about the image of an army of children rising over the crest of a hill in frantic search for Easter eggs to the strains of Ludacris’ “Move Bitch,” even if it doesn’t add much to the rest of the scene.) Ultimately, in an era when filmmakers are taking the opportunity and are encouraged to reinvent the wheel with the romantic comedy, Holidate is far too content to let its spin in the same circles as its predecessors.
Holidate will be available on Netflix October 28th, 2020. (That's today!)
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