The best romantic comedies dance delightfully on a knife edge of cynicism and goo, whereas the ones that fall off to one side or the other are . . . not the best. “Holidate” isn’t the worst — how could it be with that kitsch-perfect title? — but in trying to play up the naughty, witty side of the rom-com equation, the movie settles for snarky. It’s an acrid fairy tale, if not without a few pleasures, and it arrives on Netflix just in time for — wait, Christmas?
That’s when the movie opens, with the single Sloane (Emma Roberts) hounded by her marriage-obsessed mother (Frances Fisher) at a hellish Xmas family dinner. Somewhere else in Chicago, Jackson (Luke Bracey), a lanky Australian golf pro, endures similar torments at a girlfriend’s parents’ house, complete with hideous holiday sweaters.
Sloane and Jackson meet argumentatively cute in the returns line of a clothing store and come up with a plan to save them both: They will be each other’s “holidate” to satisfy family and friends while avoiding the complications and certain disappointments of an actual relationship. “Not that you’re not attractive,” assures Jackson. “You’re just not attractive to me.”
He’s lying, obviously, and even as Sloane scoffs at the conventions of movie romances — “No one’s ever ‘taking a break’ from dating” — “Holidate” rolls down a well-rutted road. The movie takes place over a year of holidays (including St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo and their respective sodden caricatures), and while the banter sparkles decently in the early scenes, screenwriter Tiffany Paulsen’s dialogue tries hard to be sexy and too often comes off as crude. Or maybe the problem is the amiably lightweight Roberts, who lacks the mordant heft to deliver Sloane’s zingers with the oomph they need.
Ironically, the lesser-known Bracey more than holds his own as the unflappably chauvinistic Jackson. Rom-coms demand only that their male leads be handsome, humorous, able to furrow their brows during the serious scenes, and take off their shirts as necessary. Bracey acquits himself on all counts with a confidence that keeps him just this side of generic.
Surrounding the central duo while they figure out that they’re meant for each other is a crew of supporting cartoons: Fisher’s strident noodge of a mother, Sloane’s ditzy future sister-in-law (Cynthy Wu), a handsome doctor (Manish Dayal) to make Jackson jealous. Jessica Capshaw earns honors for playing Sloane’s sister, married with children and wanting to stray, with a dollop of nuance. Kristin Chenoweth does what she can — which isn’t much at all — with the role of the heroine’s aunt, a cougar with revolving-door boyfriends.
Some of the pratfalls land but more don’t and the movie feels increasingly prefabricated as it rolls toward its expected end; it’s maybe no coincidence that a number of key scenes take place in a shopping mall. Prefab can be fun, but it has to have a genuine heart somewhere, and “Holidate” is plastic fluff. You’ll find better deals on the sale shelf at the Christmas Store — on Dec. 26.
Directed by John Whitesell. Written by Tiffany Paulsen. Starring Emma Roberts, Luke Bracey. Available on Netflix. 103 minutes. Unrated (as R: sex and drugs and naughty talk).