Emma Roberts has rom-coms in her blood. Her aunt, after all, is Julia Roberts, she of Pretty Woman, Notting Hill, While You Were Sleeping, My Best Friend’s Wedding — I could go on and on. But Holidate — ironically released on October 28, Julia Roberts’ birthday — proves that Emma intends to forge a different rom-com identity, one that’s entirely her own. If Julia was the girl next door with the gigantic, friendly smile, Emma is the blond HBIC who can strike you down with one glare. It’s a persona that she’s honed since her days as Madison Montgomery on American Horror Story: Coven, followed by the too-short-lived Scream Queens, but one that she’s never allowed to go stale. I would watch her in anything, even (especially?) in a movie that makes her shit her pants.
For those wondering about its October release, Holidate isn’t a Christmas movie per se. Over the course of the movie, Sloane (Roberts) and Jackson (Luke Bracey) celebrate New Year’s, Saint Patrick’s Day, Easter, Cinco de Mayo, Mother’s Day (though why you’d bring a guy to your one-on-one brunch with your mom is anyone’s guess), the Fourth of July, Halloween, and Labor Day together. It’s a movie that could technically be enjoyed year-round, that is, if it were any good. But Netflix’s first holiday offering of the season isn’t good. In fact, it’s pretty bad. The plot is a tinseled-up ripoff of Plus One, a genuinely great and underseen rom-com starring Maya Erskine and Jack Quaid (who, as Meg Ryan’s son, also has impeccable rom-com pedigree); the character development is non-existent beyond the basic log line, namely a man and woman who both really need dates for the holidays; and it relies heavily on tropes even as it weakly pokes fun at them. Basically, it’s the classic Netflix holiday set-up, a movie that’s designed to be flitted in and out of, as you text your friends or fold your laundry. At an hour and 43 minutes, it’s also bloated with narrative padding and useless plot segways, so don’t feel bad if you have to pee halfway through and forget to pause.
The one truly redeeming element? Roberts, who injects enough charisma into even the dullest scenes so as to make you forget that you’re stuck on your couch watching a mediocre movie because the world as we know it is basically coming to an end.
As Sloane, a young woman on the cusp of 30 whose only job description is “works from home in pajamas,” she’s almost Seinfeldian in her blatant misanthropy. The first words out of her mouth are literally “fucking holidays,” and she spends Christmas Eve playing Grinch at the kid’s table, pounding vodkas on the rocks. It’s not really that she’s a Grinch — she doesn’t hate holidays, but rather the expectations that go along with them. Why can’t she show up to her mother’s house as a single woman in sweatpants and enjoy the downtime? Why does she constantly have to fend off questions about her love life, awkward attempts at set-ups with literal clowns, or sad looks from family who worry she’ll die alone?
Luckily, fate drops a solution right into her lap when she meets golf-pro Jackson (Luke Bracey) at the returns counter at the mall. Tired of a series of women who want him to, I don’t know, be nice to them, he’s looking for a zero-commitment option that allows him to spend time with a hot girl without the pressure of hiding his true personality. Thus, the idea of the holidate is born: a person who is there for you to party with on select days of the year, but whom you’re free to ignore the rest of the time.
Of course, the outcome of such a ploy is obvious from the start: Sloane and Jackson are going to fall in love, and it’s just a matter of when. Roberts and Bracey have great chemistry, so much so that I wish they’d gotten a better movie to showcase it. They’re both unapologetic assholes, but lovable ones, and it’s fun to watch them play off one another until the inevitable conclusion. But knowing that they’re going to end up together doesn’t excuse the movie’s utter lack of imagination. Why not play around with the rom-com conventions Sloane is constantly bringing up as examples of what lies behind so many of our ridiculous romantic expectations?
Still, Roberts is undeniably fun to watch, and underneath that hard facade, she displays real vulnerability as a woman who’s been hurt one too many times, and feels like her time might be up too soon to fix it, so why not give in? She’s not in charge, so much as trying to pretend she is, and my god is it exhausting.
If you look hard enough, Holidate does hold a kernel of incisive social commentary: Women are constantly bombarded with conflicting and gendered messaging that tells us that it’s enough to be our best single selves — but only up to a point. Single at 30 — what’s wrong with you? Are you really going to eat all that chocolate — who will want you? The movie doesn’t try hard enough to take the idea beyond stereotype, but you catch a glimpse of it now and then in Roberts’ desperate expression as she watches her ex-boyfriend dote on the much younger Starbucks barista he left her for.
Holidate may be the movie equivalent of Peeps — without substance, artificially flavored, consumed as an afterthought— but Roberts is the bright dye that will make you forget the time it made you gag, and think: Hmmm, what if I try that sugary treat again?