The characters trapped in John Whitesell’s “Holidate” may not know they’re in a romantic comedy, but they sure know the perimeters of one. Sloane (Emma Roberts) and Jackson (Luke Bracey) are barely into their first encounter before they start yammering about the usual cinematic expectations of the genre — including the exact ones that will unfold in the film to come — as well as the very same outdated “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” concepts that have bolstered such movies since film history invented them. But while plenty of rom-coms have tackled this tongue-in-cheek approach before, “Holidate” never attempts to subvert the very things it mocks, instead opting for pure convention the whole way through.
At least Roberts and Bracey make for a charming pair, and their chemistry continually bolsters a script that never defies expectations, even as it tries to skewer them with flat jokes and bizarre swings at raunchy punchlines. At least Tiffany Paulsen’s script offers some additional pop, hinging on a cute conceit that guides Sloane and Jackson through an entire year of not-quite-dating, all leading up to a festive, totally expected Christmas miracle.
It’s clear from the start that Sloane and Jackson hate the holidays — after all, the first words out of Roberts’ mouth are “fucking holidays” — but Paulsen’s script does initially build in some necessary dimension to that benign stance. Sloane and Jackson don’t like the holidays because they only offer yet another chance for people to thrust their weirdo expectations on them, from Sloane’s wacky family and its obsession with fixing her up with whichever random man happens to be in the general vicinity to Jackson’s disinterest with being boxed in by increasingly bad girlfriends, all of whom go even more batty during supposedly festive times.
These two want something different (and it’s hard to blame for that), so when Sloane’s free-wheeling Aunt Susan (Kristin Chenoweth) introduces her to the idea of a “holidate” — a no-strings pal who serves as your partner during holiday functions, and nothing else — and she and Jackson have a meet-cute at a department store, the path is clear. Roberts and Bracey are very cute together, and while their initial bonding (over, of course, bad holiday experiences) feels a bit rushed, it’s all in service of launching them into the film’s winking plot. Despite all the holiday fanfare — and we’re talking every holiday, not just the ones that earn you a day off work — “Holidate” is still rife with the usual complications and miscommunications that drive the genre.
That’s all well and good, but “Holidate” can’t even quite settle into the more charming rhythms of the rom-com, consistently tossing in oddly raunchy situations — like a low-stakes finger-sucking competition at a family wedding — in lame attempts to spice up what could be a quite cute story. Strangely enough, this is a film with genuine sex appeal, and when Roberts and Bracey get away from cheap gags, there’s real romance between them. There’s more success to be found in some of the dry humorous asides, though a children’s Easter egg hunt set to the dulcet tones of “Move Bitch” doesn’t seem like the kind of bit that fits in, well, anywhere. Moments of lucidity became more and more brief, and by the time Sloane’s own sister tells her, “You like him, he likes you, these are not real problems,” you’ll likely be screaming the same sentiment at your TV.
At nearly two hours, the film has a lot of running time to pad out, and while some subplots get unexpectedly tidy endings (everyone from Aunt Susan to Sloane’s pushy mom, played by a brittle Frances Fisher, somehow get full arcs), while others are left to twist in the wind. Surely there’s other stuff going on with Jackson, who only briefly mentions his own family issues, and Sloane’s little brother York (Jake Manley) and his lady love Liz (Cynthy Wu) quite obviously had some tough stuff that was snipped, but why was any of that here in the first place?
The marquee attraction of any good rom-com is the couple at its center, and as winsome as Sloane and Jackson are, “Holidate” pays them (and their love story) less and less favors as it hobbles through the rest of the calendar. Predictability doesn’t have to be a sin when it comes to the often paint-by-the-numbers world of romantic comedy, but this awkward combination of expectation and disdain for it make for a film only fleetingly worthy of celebration.
“Holidate” is now streaming on Netflix.