Synopsis: An LA girl, unlucky in love, falls for an East Coast guy on a dating app and decides to surprise him for the holidays, only to discover that she’s been catfished.
Stars: Nina Dobrev, Jimmy O. Yang, Darren Barnet, Harry Shum Jr., Rebecca Staab, James Saito, Mikaela Hoover, Heather McMahan, Takayo Fischer, Matty Finochio
Director: Hernan Jimenez
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: For years, I was the kind of person that turned my nose up at those cheeseball holiday films that would premiere on Hallmark or Lifetime or what have you. As each season rolled around, it seemed that it was the mission of these networks to outdo their last total of cookie-cutter movies produced with generic titles that featured the same safe looking all-American couples looking for love in some faux-snowy Canadian township made to look like New England. It was the brunt of many a joke and even started to become so self-aware of itself to the point of marketing clothing, cookware, and other items to be “Christmas movie watching” regalia. Then that darn pandemic hit and I found myself with a lot of extra time on my hands in between the regular movie watching and family time. Suddenly I found myself needing to keep busy and there was an abundance of this new content coming in by the truckload…uh oh.
Yes, I completely fell into the spirit of the season and watched an enormous amount of made for television holiday movies in 2020, going so far as to actually download the Hallmark app to keep track of my progress (I’m a completist in all things in life…don’t judge) just to make sure. So I’m on the lookout for the good ones and can often spot the bad ones early on. Occasionally, a winter storm can set my radar askew and for a while it looked like the new Netflix romantic comedy set at Christmas Love Hard was going on a very early naughty list. Barely a week into November, was this going to be the first lump of coal to set aside and never think about again?
Well, they say that often you have to let love grow and give it time to flourish and that’s very much the case with Danny Mackey and Rebecca Ewing’s thin premise that peters out quickly but shockingly catches fire late in the game on account of some genuine heart from its endearing cast. It’s not a new classic by any stretch of the imagination but it has some legitimately funny moments (and one unexpected one involving a karaoke fail that had me almost falling out of my chair) as well as a strong message about how being yourself is the most important first step in finding your soul mate. You have to get through a solid twenty minutes of rough weather first before it starts to smooth out, though.
Natalie (Nina Dobrev, Run This Town) can’t seem to get the L.A. dating game right after years of using a Tinder-esque app to meet a number of men online who turn out to be duds IRL. Most of the time it’s because they don’t match up exactly with who they claim to be in their profile but some of it has to do with Natalie’s higher than usual standards for perfection. The good news is that she’s turned her dating woes into a successful writing career and made her boss (Matty Finochio) happy in the process. Her best friend (Heather McMahan) thinks she’s too narrow in her search and expands her dating profile to include all of the U.S., which is how she connects via text with Josh from Lake Placid, NY. While they disagree just enough to keep things interesting (for holiday movies, he’s a Love, Actually guy while she’s a Die Hard gal), their attraction, at least online, is instant and grows quickly. So when she mentions she wishes they were together for the upcoming Christmas holidays and he welcomes the idea, a split decision sees her on a plane to NY to meet a man she’s only seen pictures of.
Even if you didn’t know the synopsis of the movie you could likely see where this is headed, so it wouldn’t come as a shock that when Natalie makes it to her destination, Jake is not the rugged outdoorsman in the pictures she was sent but a much milder man (Jimmy O. Yang, The Opening Act) who works at the outdoor shop that sells the gear to rugged outdoorsmen. Humiliated, Natalie is about to leave…but sees the man in the pictures at a local watering hole. Not wanting to leave empty handed and pressured by her boss to write a story about the encounter or risk losing her job, Natalie agrees to pretend to be the real Jake’s girlfriend for the holidays if he’ll hook her up with the fake Jake, aka Tag (Darren Barnet) – all while she pretends to be the perfect girl for fake Jake.
As if the whole to-do with the two Jakes isn’t enough, Mackey and Ewing throw in a bunch of family drama for the real Jake to roll with, including struggling to wriggle out of the shadow of his overachieving (and spotlight hogging) older brother (Harry Shum Jr., Broadcast Signal Intrusion) and the feeling that he should be following his own dreams. The devotion to his father (the always dependable James Saito, Big Eyes) and helping him to run his business feels like he is putting his own next chapter on hold and Natalie’s presence only affirms that it’s time for him to stand up for himself. Yang is such an easy, pleasing presence onscreen that it’s only a matter of time before he lands in something that truly takes him to the next level.
The biggest problem with the movie is the leading lady. Or more to the point, the character of our leading lady. Dobrev is likable and appropriately bubbly and winsome in following her dreams out East but once she gets there Natalie proves such a hugely shallow drip following around a bland bit of fluff like Tag that you almost don’t want her to come to her senses because Jake isn’t good enough for her. The movie totally hinges on her liking Tag more than Jake but Barnet isn’t granted enough charisma to make us believe it and director Hernán Jiménez doesn’t convince us either with the way he guides Tag and Natalie together (Barnet was a late in the game casting replacement, which may explain some of this). Thankfully, there are enough moments with Yang and Dobrev together or with Jake’s family to make-up for these less than energetic exchanges.
We’re early on in the holiday movie season and Love Hard (a play on Die Hard I embarrassingly only got near the end of the movie, suggesting the title needed work) is one of the first film gifts to unwrap, meaning that it’s likely to be forgotten by the time the big day rolls around. I hope it doesn’t get too covered in holiday castoffs though, because with the appeal of its stars and the way it grows into a movie that feels far more special than when it first began it’s worth keeping your eye on.