From the opening shot of Emma Roberts’ Sloane stubbing out a cigarette on a plastic Santa and sighing, “Fucking holidays,” Holidate takes great pains to set itself apart from the wholesome side of Netflix’s holiday output. Though the film marks the official launch of an expansive Netflix holiday slate that also includes sequels to Vanessa Hudgens’ cheesy romance The Princess Switch and Kurt Russell’s family adventure The Christmas Chronicles, Holidate is more in line with the bawdy ethos of Office Christmas Party or A Bad Moms Christmas—at least until it fully embraces the rom-com hokiness it lampoons at the start. Like so much of Netflix’s quantity over quality output, Holidate is broad, unsubtle, and seemingly designed to be half-watched, phone in hand. Yet within that framework, it finds a unique comedic spark that keeps it zipping along.
The film is generic at worst and genuinely charming at best, which puts it on the right side of the Netflix rom-com line—if only barely. That mostly comes down to stars Emma Roberts and Luke Bracey, who throw themselves into the material with such gusto that it’s hard not to get a little swept away in their enthusiasm. Bracey’s laidback charisma is the perfect balance for Roberts’ tightly wound energy, especially once he gets to tap into some neuroses of his own. (The single best choice Holidate makes is letting its leading man use his natural Australian accent, which lends an ease to both his performance and the film as a whole.) If Roberts and Bracey’s chemistry is a little more comedic than romantic, that’s not the worst thing for a romantic comedy that very much emphasizes the latter half of the equation.
The appealing blonde actors play Sloane and Jackson, two singletons who suffer through disastrous Christmases and decide to team up as platonic plus-ones for a calendar’s worth of holiday events. They’re sort of fake dating and sort of When Harry Met Sally-ing, which eventually results in real feelings complicating their “no strings attached” arrangement as it moves from New Year’s Eve to Fourth Of July and everything in between. Of course, it doesn’t really make sense that someone would be in desperate need of a date for St. Patrick’s Day or Cinco De Mayo. (Last year’s charming indie rom-com Plus One offered a much better and more logical riff on this same idea.) But picking apart plot holes is sometimes half the fun of watching these Netflix romantic comedies, and this one will certainly provide plenty of water-cooler fodder.
One potential topic of discussion is the way the film’s sitcomish imagery further blurs the line between movies and TV. Director John Whitesell (Big Momma’s House 2, Deck The Halls) utilizes a bright, slightly fished-eyed aesthetic that calls to mind mid-aughts single-camera comedies like Ugly Betty and Glee, or even Ryan Murphy’s early series Popular. Given that Emma Roberts is a longtime Murphy collaborator steeped in his comedic rhythms, it’s not hard to see Holidate’s blend of snark and earnestness as an attempt to knock off Murphy’s signature “more is more,” mile-a-minute style. That approach at least ensures that for every joke that misses (like Kristin Chenoweth’s brassy Aunt Susan describing her clitoris as a beautiful butterfly), there’s one that hits (like a slow motion Easter egg hunt set to Ludacris’ “Move Bitch”).
With so much potential, it’s frustrating that Holidate basically gives up in its third act. Screenwriter Tiffany Paulsen tries to lampshade the flaw by having Sloane complain about the fact that in romantic comedies “there’s always some fake reason the stars can’t be together when you know they’re gonna be together from the poster.” But self-awareness isn’t enough to make up for the tedium that sets in once Holidate switches from humor to pathos and finally reveals just how underdeveloped its lead characters actually are. Sloane’s biggest defining character trait is the fact that she eats more junk food than both Gilmore girls combined.
Yet what Holidate lacks in character motivation or cohesive subplots, it mostly makes up for in its audacious blend of tones. When the Halloween segment clunkily shoehorns in the old comedy standby of someone accidentally taking laxatives, the film seems destined to head fully off the rails. Miraculously, however, Holidate manages to turn the sequence into something that’s both funny and sweet—a moment of vulnerability that builds to a genuinely sexy encounter. It’s a masterful swerve that speaks to the even stronger film this could’ve been if it weren’t content to be a Netflix throwaway. Still, the glimmers of originality make this all-holidays affair more of a treat than a trick.