I was late to the game on Netflix’s Holidate. As much as I love romantic comedies, somehow the yearly holiday streaming movies have yet to reel me in. But I kept seeing this one promoted all across social media, so I finally gave in to the hype and watched.
My first thought was “What an incredible concept for a holiday movie!” It’s not just a Christmas promotion, it can be trotted back out as a Valentine’s Day movie, an Easter movie, a Cinco de Mayo movie, a Mother’s Day flick, a Fourth of July stunt, a Halloween entry, and a Thanksgiving piece. It. Is. Genius. (Netflix should franchise it and do a version swapping out the religious holidays for Jewish holidays, Muslim holidays, Hindu…the possibilities are endless!)
Alas, Holidate just doesn’t live up to its amazing concept. It was right there in front of them, and they whiffed it. In SO MANY WAYS.
First of all, the film can’t decide if it wants to be a traditional by-the-numbers rom-com or an edgy Millennial off-kilter rom-com. Does it want to pay homage to the tropes of When Harry Met Sally? Does it want to shock like Bridesmaids? Or does it want to provide some “realism” like The Big Sick? Yes! And I get that, I really do. Maybe it’s even possible to be everything to everyone, but Holidate barely even tries–it just takes a standard formula and shoves in some foul language and crude humor. Just because Emma Roberts in 2020 isn’t Julia Roberts in 1990 doesn’t mean she has to be wildly inappropriate in her interactions with children. That’s not quirky or modern, it’s just odd.
Another problem is that the set-up feels anachronistic. Roberts’ Sloane faces pressure from her family to get married. After all, she’s almost 30! Sloane’s mom is unapologetic about nagging her to fix her pathetic love life. Her siblings don’t help–her little brother proposes to his girlfriend at Christmas dinner. The horror of a younger sib getting married first! Her older sister allows Mom to seat Sloane at the kids’ table (because she’s single, see?) and then blames Sloane for putting up with it. So they’re a nightmare.
This is exactly the set-up I would’ve written back in 1998. It was, in fact, my life back in 1998. (It’s also nearly identical to the beginning of a rom-com script I did start to write years ago and then abandoned–BECAUSE IT’S ANACHRONISTIC.) I have to question whether this is still a relatable experience here in the 21st century. More than a third of American adults in their 20s are single. 57% of Millennial mothers are single moms–not that they’re necessarily “single” by any current definition, because many of them live with their partners. They’re just not married. My point here is that the traditional view of women needing to find a husband young in order to properly start their adult life is not a view a lot of people hold anymore. So while I–a Gen Xer–sympathize with Sloane, I think most of her compatriots would tell her to stop whining and ignore her out-of-touch family.
A much bigger problem, however, is that having set up Sloane’s family as the reason for her frustration, the movie then completely undermines that set-up. After her disastrous family Christmas, Sloane meets sexy Australian Jackson at the mall in an exchange line. (To me, malls also feel a bit anachronistic in the age of internet shopping, but maybe other people still subject themselves to in-person annoyances like waiting in line.)
They compare their terrible holiday love life issues and make a plan to avoid those issues for the year by serving as each other’s date on all the holidays! Great! But then it becomes clear almost immediately that Sloane’s entire family is aware of this deal. What? How on earth does it help her avoid pity and nagging from her family to show up with a fake date THAT THEY KNOW IS FAKE? The answer is that it doesn’t–her mother keeps nagging her just like before.
Have they never seen The Wedding Date? Can’t Buy Me Love? To All the The Boys I’ve Loved Before? PRETTY WOMAN? The key to the fake relationship trope is that the couple has to pretend it’s real. Sure, there can be a wacky best friend character who’s in on the secret. But if literally everyone else in the movie knows it’s a fake relationship, the entire gimmick falls apart.
Jackson’s reason for wanting a plus-one at holiday events is so that he doesn’t have to deal with the relationship pressure women feel when casually dating during holidays. Sexist, but understandable. But Sloane’s explicit reason for this holidate situation is to get her family off her back! Why on earth would she tell them the truth? It just gives them one more reason to say she’s pathetic–now they nag her about not having a man AND about pretending to have a man! Plus, it robs the movie of all the romantic tension involved in having to fake being together. Who can forget the first awkward-turned-interesting kiss between Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds in The Proposal? Moments like that are the whole point of the fake relationship trope. Holidate takes away any need for them, and the story suffers.
I’m beating this point to death, but I am very passionate about rom-com cliches. They are sacred and must be handled competently. If Holidate wanted to subvert the fake relationship trope, fantastic! Here’s one way: they have a fake relationship and don’t end up falling in love! (That’s the dark and realistic version, which interestingly is also how my abandoned rom-com script was going to end.) Here’s another way: their fake relationship is set up in such a way that it changes the trope, like in last year’s lovely Plus One. There, our couple agrees to be each other’s date for all the weddings over a summer. But they’re friends already and are only going as friends. It’s not a fake relationship at all, we just think it may be one based on the film’s marketing material.
Finally, I want to make all rom-com screenwriters aware of the fact that saddling the heroine with the uncontrollable urge to poop is not an automatic pass to edginess. Bridesmaids pulled it off because it had the element of surprise (and brilliant actors) on its side. Shoehorning it into a movie for no good reason is simply…you know, shoehorning it into a movie for no good reason.
Other thoughts on Holidate:
–I convinced my husband to watch this with me by telling him Kristin Chenoweth was in it, and based on this promo photo we assumed there would be at least SOME Chenowith singing. There was not. That seems like it should be illegal.
–The tertiary (or maybe the quaternary?) relationship in this movie, between Sloane’s brother and his new wife, is a legit fresh idea. These two get married quickly, with all the trappings, and then she realizes that she doesn’t know a thing about him and kinda doesn’t like him. It’s really funny.
—Emma Roberts plays Sloane’s inherent self-centeredness straight, which means she’s not very likable. Jessica Capshaw, as her bored-married sister who drunkenly cheats on her husband, is charming and funny. There’s a way to play self-centered without being an asshole, and Capshaw proves it.
Holidate, in short, would work better if it followed some simple rules:
Make sense. Why on earth would you bring your fake date to a one-on-one Mother’s Day brunch with the mother who you’re trying to placate, when she knows he’s a fake date?
Put the characters in situations that match the set-up. Sloane needs her family to get off her back. Bringing Jackson to nightclub parties for New Year’s, St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, and Halloween are therefore unnecessary. She’d be better off going alone and meeting a real boyfriend.
Don’t allow the formula to become formulaic. The ongoing holiday schtick gets boring. What would’ve been better is for one of them to start expanding their deal. “I know we said holidays, but I really need a date to my boss’s wedding,” for instance. Perhaps with an answer like, “Fine, but only if you come with me to my cousin’s gender-reveal party.” And then use the slowly dissolving boundaries to ramp up the time they’re spending together WITHOUT the excuse of their deal. (Netflix, if you’re listening, I’m happy to write you a better version.)
Make sure the grand gesture is earned. Sloane ruins her relationship with Jackson by pushing him away after they have sex. Because…well, I’m not really sure. Because she’s afraid of intimacy, I think? It’s not super clear, and neither is her reason for changing her mind. But suddenly there she is in the mall at Christmastime, with a gospel choir at her back and a microphone in her hand, giving a speech that’s far too long, offensive to the families waiting for Santa pictures with their kids, AND mostly about herself. It’s shot as the big gesture that traditional romantic comedies all need. But it simply doesn’t feel natural or even warranted. The stakes haven’t changed since last time they spoke. She could’ve just called him and talked about it privately. A big gesture without big stakes is more cringeworthy than romantic.
Look, I’m not a Scrooge. I’ll watch pretty much any stereotypical rom-com and like it. But Netflix missed the mark here–Holidate was a terrific idea, and could easily have been an excellent stereotypical rom-com or even a truly great rom-com! I’m not mad at it for being bad. I’m just disappointed at it for not fulfilling its potential.
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