“Love Hard,” a holiday catfish story masquerading as a romance, is a swipe right and a miss
Describing “Love Hard” as a serviceable, disposable holiday rom-com should be taken as a selling point, not an insult. That simply means that the movie is fulfilling the role everyone expects of it, following the Christmas TV movie blueprint to the millimeter.
Does it star someone who used to be a poster model for The CW (or The WB or UPN)? Why yes: “Vampire Diaries” star Nina Dobrev is this season’s career woman fleeing the horror show that is dating in the big city.
Her character Natalie undertakes a bicoastal mission to find The One, but even this quest is – check another box on that bingo card! – related to her career.
Natalie is a staff writer for a Buzzfeed-style site where she’s been forcibly married to the “disaster dates” beat by a grossly inappropriate boss who loves watching her suffer. Writing under the pseudonym Always a Bridesmaid, Natalie is a present-day Carrie Bradshaw who never gets to nut, and whose misery has been commodified into clickbait.
But Natalie really does believe in love, so she expands her search beyond the Los Angeles metropolitan area and swipes right on an outdoorsy East Coast hunk (“Never Have I Ever” star Darren Barnet). They trade playful banter and lines from Shel Silverstein poems, generally backstroking through a stream of meet-cute blah-dee-blah without meeting or connecting on FaceTime.
Just as we catch that whiff of day-old catfish, Natalie decides to take a grand leap and fly from Los Angeles to New York – Lake Placid, not that other dirty, unwholesome metropolis – only to find out that the guy whose personality has won her over doesn’t match his photo. She pictured she was chatting with the face of Paxton Hall-Yoshida only to be greeted in person by . . . Josh, played by “Silicon Valley” star Jimmy O. Yang.
Since all holiday movies operate upon a current of predictability established by the Hallmark Channel, especially throwaway cute bombs like this, you should be able to guess where this ends up.
It’s the journey that makes us question its worth.
“Love Hard” feels like a misfit created in a Christmas lab as opposed to a confectionery treat. A mating of algorithm and marketplace opportunity, it is the streaming service’s way of catering to a demand for inclusive casts that Hallmark didn’t deign to acknowledge for years.
The reigning mistletoe movie juggernaut is starting to turn a corner on that front after years of literally interpreting the white Christmas concept. The willingness of other channels and streamers like Lifetime, Freeform, OWN and Netflix to appeal to audiences it willfully left out probably spurred this shift.
However, “Love Hard” is a cautionary example of what happens when we aren’t specific about what we want in a love story that isn’t merely a meeting of strangers but people from different backgrounds.
What we get in “Love Hard” is a rom-com written by a pair of white writers (Danny Mackey and Rebecca Ewing) that shoves an Asian American family into roles that were obviously meant for white actors, tossing in a few lines meant to acknowledge their Asian identity as a retrofit.
It’s hard to say whether it’s more maddening or hilarious that these tossed-off lines also affirm a few “model-minority” stereotypes. The catfish version of Josh can’t merely be hot, you see. Natalie’s friend gushes over the detail in his profile indicating Josh is an Asian American guy who speaks three languages. Granted, everyone embellishes in their dating profiles. But calling out ethnicity in that context represents a choice, and a clumsy one at that.
Upon meeting Josh’s family, which happens before Natalie comes face to face with him, his grandmother blurts out the guess that Natalie might be his “geisha” – which is ridiculous, but perhaps uniquely odd coming from the grandmother of man who identifies as Chinese.
All told it’s a strange case of a holiday story negating a family’s Asian identity while also othering them in specific way. That’s what hits before we get to the leads’ total lack of chemistry.
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There are three or four Hallmark Christmas movie formulas that made-for-TV flicks adapt to suit their own brand. This script adds the Netflix-friendly spin of having the two would-be turtle doves clash on the topic of favorite holiday movies.
Josh, an incurable romantic, adores “Love, Actually,” while “Die Hard” is Nat’s favorite midwinter jam. (The movie’s title represents a mash-up of these disparate tastes, although it could also be a caveman’s summary of the dating scene in 2021: “Love HARD . . . fire BAD!”) Opposites attract, always and forever . . . and yet the screenwriters never bother to develop a plausible path for the destined couple to find its way to each other.
This story’s swerve (which isn’t enough to qualify as a twist) is that the face Josh uses to hook Natalie in his dating profile belongs to his childhood friend Tag (Barnet). So as recompense for his deception Josh agrees to help Natalie land Tag, largely by making false claims about herself.
In exchange she agrees to pretend that she and Josh are dating, egged on by Josh’s competitive relationship with his hot older brother Owen (Harry Shum Jr.). Eventually the ruse spins off its axis, per usual, and resolves both typically and weakly.
“Love Hard” is the umpteenth version of the Cyrano de Bergerac plot, where Mr. Right has the wrong looks but the soul of a poet and is drawn into a scheme to help a conventionally attractive person land another conventionally attractive person.
The lesson of this formula is that personality is more important than looks; also, Natalie, it’s Christmas! The holidays are a time for grand wish lists and settling for whatever marginally nice non-returnable crap you get instead. This film exemplifies that!
There’s an entirely separate, short piece to be written about what Dobrev’s character and her actions tell us about how Mackey and Ewing view journalists, but never mind that. Dobrev’s strength is in her fetching unpretentiousness; she’s perfect for the role of someone a mom would instantly like and who isn’t take aback by your horny grandma (Takayo Fischer, the true hero of this piece).
But in casting Yang, a stand-up comic, as the “nose,” the writers and director Hernán Jiménez pass up the chance to capitalize on his wit. Not to imply that Yang isn’t appealing, but this movie tosses him into a pageant with two actors, Shum and Barnet, who have been marketed as sex symbols. At least give the kid some jokes!
If only. Yang’s Josh is a neutered schlub living in his parents’ basement who doesn’t do much more than pacify the woman he’s fooled into blowing her personal time on a foolish wager.
Beyond their collaboration on a modern, non-controversial remake of “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” one of the few sequences that make sitting through this movie worthwhile, Yang and Dobrev share no spark. Zilch. And the writers don’t feed the actors much to help us even root for them as a couple.
All of this assumes the audience for “Love Hard” wants much of, well, anything from it other than a flash of warm fuzziness, which is probably silly. The main purpose of movies like this is to help us zone out or maybe serve as background noise as we prep home and hearth for the holly-and-ivy onslaught.
In that respect it does the job well enough. Beyond that isn’t much to hang our hopes on, let alone anything that merits the gift of our limited attention.
“Love Hard” streams Friday, Nov. 5 on Netflix. Watch a trailer for it below, via YouTube.
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