The Netflix holiday rom-com is not especially festive, funny, or romantic.
Credit: Steve Dietl/NETFLIX

What do we hope for, what do we expect, from a straight-to-streaming holiday rom-com? I genuinely don't know. Any one of those elements can lower the bar, but all three have offered things transcendent (the first especially, more and more). Still, you're not doing yourself a huge favor by queuing up John Whitesell's Holidate (now playing on Netflix) and hoping for a Love Actually or Set It Up or even A Christmas Prince, which is unforgivably bad but somehow undeniably, unbelievably watchable.

Emma Roberts and Luke Bracey star in the resolutely mediocre romantic comedy as Sloane and Jackson, a pair of single Chicagoans who, after a nightmarish solo Christmas at home (for her) and an even worse one with a newish girlfriend's deranged family (for him), meet kinda-cute at the returns counter for a dreadfully uncool mall store, trying to erase at least one ill-fitting piece of their holiday from hell.

After some needlessly unkind banter, these strangers agree to become each other's holidates: That is, they'll be each other's dates on every holiday for as long as they're both single, so neither of them ever need suffer the indignity of sitting at the kids' table as an unattached pariah ever again. The rest of the movie takes us through the following year, with stops on New Year's Eve, Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Easter, Cinco de Mayo (an extremely unnecessary choice for two extremely white characters), Mother's Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and then we're back at Christmas, because that's how years work. They eventually realize that they want to spend the rest of their holidays together for the rest of their lives, because that's how movies work.

The film is at its best not in its halfhearted attempts at raunchiness — that's firmly when it's at its worst — nor its wannabe-meta conversations about romantic comedies, but when it lets Roberts and Bracey just be, teasing out their easy chemistry and testing the limits of their yearlong flirtation. She's got sarcasm and a bit of an edge; he's got an Australian-accented playful charm. They'd be well matched if screenwriter Tiffany Paulsen's script took them anywhere, or had anything new or true to say.

As it is, though, the leaden dialogue and awkward pacing ensure that the shallow, unfunny Holidate never takes off, and the development of their romance is only believable because it's such a foregone conclusion. A slew of "wacky" side characters — the most memorable being Sloane's aunt, played by an admirably game Kristin Chenoweth — are mostly just irritating.

The flimsiness of the premise is also hard to get on board with; this is true of a lot of rom-coms, but Holidate refuses to break its own rules or break out any surprises, to its detriment. The basic idea worked to much greater romantic and comedic effect in last year's Plus One, in which our young heroes are actually friends to begin with, and pair up for weddings rather than Mother's Day brunch. Most of the events Sloane and Jackson attend are completely single-friendly, so their arrangement feels more like a social experiment in forced romantic tension than a standing mutual favor. The need for a date on St. Patrick's Day doesn't feel remotely urgent enough to merit a whole movie; such a sentiment inspires a line of desperation in When Harry Met Sally, magnificently delivered as always by Carrie Fisher, but it's little more than a sly throwaway moment. I defer to the wisdom of Nora Ephron.

Ultimately, Holidate is a lot like the concept that gives the movie its title: It's a decent enough placeholder if you feel like you should be watching a festive romantic comedy this time of year — which I suppose is the real point of a straight-to-streaming holiday rom-com in the first place. In the end, though, it's really not worth bringing home to mom. Grade: C-

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