Even though it’s just early November, Netflix is already decking its halls with boughs of cheap Christmas material, the most apparent time of year for the streamer to style itself after the Lifetime and Hallmark networks, a plan that’s undeniably, though depressingly, paying off.
Last year’s performance was simply terrible. A California Christmas was the streamer’s top picture for a week, beating out bigger-budget alternatives (a sequel arrives next month), despite being almost intentionally inept, following on from the continuous popularity of The Princess Switch series.
As a result, there are more dubious choices this year than ever before, including Brooke Shields’ A Castle for Christmas, Elizabeth Hurley’s Father Christmas is Back, and Netflix’s first LGBTQ Christmas comedy, Single All the Way.
With the exception of 2019’s Let It Snow, which was a pleasant surprise, it’s mostly background noise to wrap presents to, which is exactly the right level of anticipation to have before pressing play on Love Hard, the streamer’s first festive offering of the year, an unoffensive time-filler that’s hard to love but easy to like.
It’s not exactly a glowing recommendation, but it’s a delicious regurgitation of formula, knowing what to do and executing it well – which, in this subgenre and on this platform, is itself a remarkable accomplishment.
It’s a narrative about a city lady visiting a rural village for the holidays, which is a well-worn cliche (the set-up for about 90 percent of Lifetime and Hallmark channel Christmas movies). Natalie (The Vampire Diaries alum Nina Dobrev) is our heroine this time, and she earns a career as a dating columnist in Los Angeles, or whatever parts of British Columbia may pass for Los Angeles.
Her swiping may be profitable (the worse the date, the better the tale), but she’s still looking for the one, or at least someone who isn’t a complete catastrophe. She adjusts her app settings and begins conversing with a man on the opposite side of the nation, encouraged by her ridiculously standard romcom best friend (the sort that presumably deactivates when she leaves the room) who assures her that all LA guys are jerks.
Natalie plans to surprise him in person for the holidays after they become friends, only to discover that she has been catfished. So the guy she believed was Tag (Darren Barnet from Never Have I Ever) turns out to be Josh (Jimmy O Yang from Silicon Valley), resulting in, well, comedy.
The film then breaks into two ludicrous scenarios: one in which Natalie pretends to be Josh’s girlfriend in order to please his family, and the other in which Natalie romances Tag while claiming to be the lady of his dreams with Josh’s aid. It’s all predictable, but owing to a game Dobrev, who has a prickly chemistry with an easygoing Yang, it’s not wholly uninteresting.
The basic takeaways may be painfully apparent (beauty is more than skin deep, yada yada yada; perfection is overrated, etc yada yada), but there’s a certain pleasure in seeing Hernán Jiménez cheerfully connect the connections without breaking a sweat. The script, written by Danny Mackey and Rebecca Ewing, is nowhere near as witty and incisive as it thinks it is (the press materials refer to it as When Harry Met Sally meets Roxanne), but there are a few well-crafted 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.
Love Hard is more palatable than most micro-budgeted Canadian-shot but American-set Christmas romance comedies, and that will do for now in Netflix’s gloomy grotto of underground expectations.