It’s no secret that romantic comedies have a major technology problem. Around the same time multiplexes became too clogged with Marvel sequels to make room for “the next ‘Notting Hill,’ modern love began migrating to the decidedly un-cinematic realm of dating apps. The ubiquity of Tinder and its ilk started to confront rom-coms with some of the same logistical headaches that have been haunting slasher movies for the last two decades (to say nothing of Twitter, which arguably presents a more existential threat to a tradition whose outmoded tropes and petrified gender dynamics often require a degree of disbelief that can’t survive the slaughterhouse of online discourse).
For better or worse, the world is changing faster than Richard Curtis could ever hope to keep up with. And though the digital age might seem perfectly suited for candied stories about people who construct Jenga towers of lies in order to make someone like them, the rare movies that try to Frankenstein together 21st-century rom-coms from the rubble of 20th-century screenplays tend to do so with all the grace of a mad scientist or a massive content farm, because those movies now tend to be second-tier Netflix junk like “The Kissing Booth.” Or Hernán Jiménez’s “Love Hard,” which leverages home-for-the-holidays nostalgia in a flimsy bid to split the difference between “Catfish” and “Cyrano de Bergerac.”
Before we go any further, a quick word about that mishmash of a title. Although it sounds like the name of the best Leslie Nielsen parody never made, “Love Hard” actually refers to the two most controversial works of Jesus-adjacent art since Andres Serrano’s 1987 “Piss Christ,” by which of course I mean “Love, Actually” and “Die Hard.” Both of those films play a crucial role in this one, in so far as the DM-centric romance that develops between hacky L.A. dating columnist Natalie Bauer (Nina Dobrev) and her “Flirt Alert” match Josh is sparked by a cutesy debate over the better Christmas movie, which of course leads to an inevitable sidebar about whether “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie at all. It’s scintillating stuff, and the perfect vibe check for a very online rom-com that couldn’t be more social media savvy if it had been written by Sen. Richard “will you commit to ending Finsta” Blumenthal himself (actual script credit belongs to Rebecca Ewing and Danny Mackey). It’s a Christmas miracle this movie ends before Natalie and Josh can get into a screaming match about whether that dress is gold or blue.
Indeed, it turns out this star-crossed duo have some more pressing beef with each other. Single, orphaned, and supposedly incapable of finding a decent man in all of Los Angeles despite the fact that she’s a nice and gorgeous 30-year-old whose job requires her to date as many people as possible, Natalie goes all-in on the cute guy she meets online. He looks like a scruffier version of certified hottie Paxton Hall-Yoshida from the Netflix show “Never Have I Ever,” and every time she talks to him via text or on the phone, Natalie’s life melts into a montage. When Natalie decides to fly to Lake Placid and surprise her new crush for Christmas, her editor (Matty Finochio) licks his lips at the potential pageviews that a column about the trip might inspire; that hunger for content is the only semi-realistic aspect of a workplace that so hilariously glamorizes modern journalism it makes “Sex and the City” look like “All the President’s Men.”
Alas, when Natalie shivers her way into upstate New York and knocks on Josh’s door, our girl is aghast to discover that she’s been duped by a dorky introvert (an endearing Jimmy O. Yang) who lives with his parents, works at his dad’s winter apparel store, and dreams of launching his own scented candle business one day. The only silver lining is that Josh actually knows the Paxton Hall-Yoshida look-alike whose photos he used on his dating profile — it’s his childhood friend Tag (played by Paxton Yall-Yoshida look-alike actor Darren Barnet) who lives down the street — and Josh agrees to set Natalie up with him if she’ll stay with his family for Christmas and pretend to be his girlfriend.
It doesn’t make any sense that Natalie would need extra help catching Tag’s eye, or that she would feel comfortable sleeping in the same room as some random internet boy who’s already betrayed her trust, but rom-com logic is a hell of a drug. At least this movie is consistently committed to the archaic idea that love can be measured by the mere accumulation of shared commonalities and private trivia; Natalie tries to seduce the super-crunchy Tag by pretending that she also loves rock-climbing and Henry David Thoreau, while Josh tries win her over by noticing that she has nine different smiles or whatever (it helps that Yang’s unassuming performance never makes you feel like Josh is cynically working the “nice guy” angle). There’s also a certain transference of sins that levels the very PG playing field between Josh and Natalie, in that she becomes the more active liar once he cons her across the country.
The dynamic between these characters is as simple and timeless as the dramatic question that will define their future together: Is physical attraction more important than personal connection? In the context of “Love Hard,” that question also demands an immediate follow-up: Did I miss a scene where a lethal virus somehow made it so that Josh and Tag are the only single men left on Earth? Natalie may be anxious for someone to kiss under the mistletoe, and it goes without saying that women are unfairly burdened with certain social and biological pressures to settle down before “it’s too late,” but “Love Hard” genuinely seems to think that its heroine has no choice but to spend the rest of her life with one of these two boys. The idea of, say, salvaging a platonic friendship with Josh from this warped situation is unthinkable to a movie that almost seems as allergic to breaking from genre convention as Natalie is to kiwis (a factoid that’s mentioned twice before it results in the most horrifyingly swollen face in any rom-com this side of “Hitch”).
There are moments of palpable sweetness between Josh and Natalie, all of which are owed to the laidback charisma of the actors who play them, and some of which even wrest a morsel of charm from the jaws of cliché (e.g. an improvised duet of “Baby it’s Cold Outside” that sanitizes the song’s rapey undertones). But “Love Hard” is too lazy to support the efforts of its cast, a likable group whose performances are nevertheless as cringeworthy as watching people lean into trust falls with no one around to catch them. Takayo Fischer is game for a good time as Josh’s saucy grandma, but her role is flattened under such ridiculously broad sitcom beats that actual laughs are out of the question. A similar fate befalls James Saito’s affectionate turn as Josh’s dad, though Harry Shum Jr. bears the worst of it for sticking his neck out as Josh’s narcissistic cartoon of an older brother.
These actors, Shum most of all, are major outliers in a movie that isn’t “bad” so much as it makes no legible effort to be good. Like most of Netflix’s seasonal assembly line of yuletide fare, “Love Hard” is both too well-cast for the Hallmark Channel and too half-assed for movie theaters. It’s likewise adrift between rom-com nostalgia, reckoning with the anxieties of dating in the digital age, and simply hitting enough data points to give the algorithm what it wants for Christmas. American rom-coms have become a zombie genre, and brainless streaming content like “Love Hard” — from its tech-driven narrative, nostalgic plotting, and tossed-off production — epitomizes why they refuse to die or be reborn.
“Love Hard” is now streaming on Netflix.
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