“F***ing holidays,” a cigarette-smoking Emma Roberts begrudges before entering her family’s bustling home on Christmas to begin “Holidate,” a thorn-wrapped Hallmark card of a movie hitting Netflix on Wednesday. In an ordinary year when we’d actually be finalizing travel plans for get-togethers as the air begins to chill, the rom-com-satire’s decision to open with a skewering of the Christmas season’s abrasive commerciality would be a delight to that particular viewer skeptical about reuniting with relatives whose primary concerns are why they’re still single. But in 2020, as many proactively choose to forgo plans during the ongoing pandemic, even the most yuletide-dismayed among us may wish to reunite with that sibling we’ve spoken to only once in 12 months.
We shouldn’t hold the bad timing against “Holidate,” and it’s still rather easy to appreciate how its Oct. 28 release is a brilliant bit of timing—mask up and head to Walmart to stock up on mini candy bars, and you’ll likely find the season’s first Christmas firs in the aisles as well, however ludicrous it is. If you’re likely to punt your radio into a lake as “Jingle Bell Rock” starts playing the week before Halloween, the intermittently successful “Holidate” was made for you; or, at least, the parts of it that subvert the fuzzy tropes of holiday-themed romances before the movie eventually throws itself in their embrace under the mistletoe.
“Holidate” centers on Roberts’s Sloane and Luke Bracey’s Jackson, two love-scorned Chicagoans who meet while returning unwanted gifts in the post-Christmas mall rush. They’re magnetized to each other, not by a spark, but by the mutual exhaustion of spending another holiday fending off expectations of lifelong commitment from family or friends. A pact is created: They’ll accompany each other to the big New Year’s Eve party, not as romantic partners but two single 20-somethings bound by romantic failure. The idea is that, as each other’s so-called “holidates,” they’ll be liberated from traditional boyfriend-girlfriend constraints to drink and dance all they want. Afterward, it’s goodbye for good. At least, that’s the idea.
Of course, things don’t end up being that simple; even if “Holidate” starts out by upending our expectations of a certain kind of movie, director John Whitesell and screenwriter Tiffany Paulsen are still guided by the “When Harry Met Sally” template of boundaries built to be demolished with the force of a heart’s flutter. And though Christmastime/New Year’s is our launching point, the premise – and Sloane and Jackson’s contract – becomes a year-round affair as they continue to reunite (accidentally) on Valentine’s Day and (purposefully) on Easter, St. Patrick’s, Cinco de Mayo and every other reason on the calendar to either get sloshed or appease the family by not coming alone to a celebration (Frances Fisher, as she's wont to do, steals the screen anytime she's on it as Sloane's impatient mom). Aside from developments on the story’s sidelines, you don’t feel the scope of time’s passing so much as get drawn into the equally cynical personalities leading the way, and their increasingly opening up to each other about what soured them on love to begin with; Jackson harboring resentment over his ex taking off with the panini maker is a particularly comical touch. It's also some of the only backstory of any kind we get to his character.
I would hope it isn’t a spoiler so suggest that you can guess fairly early on where “Holidate” is going, which is why, perhaps inevitably, the movie’s first hour is a more enjoyable time before it eases into the deep-looks-into-each-others-eyes of it all in the final 40 or so minutes. As a movie about the anxiety of commitment, “Holidate” offers no new epiphanies. But in their monologuing about the follies of dependance, Sloane and Jackson become a profanely endearing study in genre counterbalance, even if “Four Weddings and a Funeral” is essentially doing the same thing to more satisfying and revelatory effect. Roberts, whose unique talent at playing the stone-hearted Millennial was cemented in what might be “American Horror Story’s” most enduring moment, was made for this kind of self-reflexive holiday movie about soulful looks and morning-after regrets. And Sydney native Bracey, best known for roles in 2015’s “Point Break” remake and the big-screen “G.I. Joe” franchise, is exceptional with his winning presence and R-rated outbursts as a sort of anti-Chris Hemsworth. (There’s certainly another universe where Bracey donned Thor’s hammer in the MCU.)
Roberts and Bracey ensure there’s plenty of caustic charm and raunchy shenanigans to be had with “Holidate” – which gets as outrageous as a “Man Seeking Woman” episode before briefly sneaking into stoner comedy territory – but there’s also some real juice in the juxtaposition of their off-putting attitudes and the overpolished merriment of the Christmas aesthetic. Nothing in the movie is as freshly tongue-in-cheek as its opening 10 minutes, though, and while “Holidate” does its damndest to live up to it, a later misadventure with laxatives on Halloween feels like the movie desperately holding out in subversion mode for as long as it can. Whitesell does an admirable job keeping his variety of tones neatly in line, even if his movie’s third act feels like taking a mouthful of stuffing, candy corn and hot dog in the same bite—it’s sacrilegious to what tradition demands, but sometimes, I suppose, sour is more appetizing than sweet.
"Holidate" is not rated; this is more profane than your average holiday doo-wop. It starts streaming on Netflix Wednesday.
Starring: Emma Roberts, Luke Bracey, Kristin Chenoweth, Frances Fisher
Directed by John Whitesell
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