It might only be early November but ’tis already the season for Netflix to litter its halls with boughs of cheap Christmas content, the most obvious time of the year for the streamer to model itself after the Lifetime and Hallmark channels, a strategy that’s undoubtedly, somewhat depressingly, paying off.
Last year’s truly execrable A California Christmas was the streamer’s biggest film for a week, beating out bigger-budget options (a sequel drops next month), despite being almost maliciously incompetent, following on from the continued success of The Princess Switch franchise. And so this year there’s more questionable options than ever, from Brooke Shields in A Castle for Christmas, Elizabeth Hurley in Father Christmas is Back and Netflix’s first LGBTQ Christmas comedy, Single All the Way.
Aside from the odd exception (2019’s Let It Snow was a surprise charmer), it’s mostly background noise to wrap presents to, exactly the right level of expectation one should have before pressing play on Love Hard, the streamer’s first festive offering of the year, an inoffensive time-filler that’s hard to love but easy to like. It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement but it’s a palatable regurgitation of formula, knowing what to do and doing it competently – which in this subgenre and on this platform is already, sadly, one heck of an achievement.
It’s a story focused on the familiar trope of the city woman heading to a small town for the holiday season (the set-up for about 90% of Lifetime and Hallmark channel Christmas movies). This time our protagonist is Natalie (The Vampire Diaries alum Nina Dobrev), who miraculously makes her living as a dating columnist living in Los Angeles, or whatever bits of British Columbia can pass for Los Angeles. Her swiping might be good for business (the worse the date, the better the story) but she’s still waiting for the one, or any one who isn’t a total disaster. Encouraged by her laughably stock romcom best friend (the kind that probably deactivates when she leaves the room), who tells her that all LA men are assholes, she changes her app settings and starts chatting to a guy living on the other side of the country. The two hit it off and Natalie decides to surprise him in person for the holidays, only to find that she’s being catfished. So the person she thought was Tag (Never Have I Ever’s Darren Barnet) turns out to be Josh (Silicon Valley’s Jimmy O Yang), leading to, you know, hilarity.
The film then splits into two farcical scenarios: one has Natalie pretending to be Josh’s girlfriend to impress his family and the other has Natalie romancing Tag, pretending to be the woman of his dreams with help from Josh. It’s all predictably silly yet not entirely unengaging, thanks to a game Dobrev, who has a spiky chemistry with an amiable Yang. The big ole lessons might be painfully obvious ones (beauty is more than skin-deep yada yada yada; perfection is overrated yada yada yada) but there’s a base satisfaction in watching Hernán Jiménez energetically join the dots without breaking a sweat. The script, from Danny Mackey and Rebecca Ewing, is nowhere near as witty and incisive as it thinks it is (press materials ambitiously refer to it as When Harry Met Sally meets Roxanne) but there are a handful of well-constructed moments – a surprisingly sweet “woke” riff on date-rape anthem Baby It’s Cold Outside and a Love Actually-inspired ending – that help us power through some of the lazier ones.
As micro-budgeted Canadian-shot yet American-set Christmas romantic comedies go, Love Hard is more tolerable than most and, in Netflix’s dank grotto of subterranean expectations, that will do for now.