Taking cues from an aunt who brings a string of random guys to family holiday gatherings may not be wise. Yet, in the pleasantly diverting rom-com “Holidate” (streaming on Netflix), that’s exactly what Sloane (Emma Roberts) does, with a twist. After meeting prickly, she and handsome strange Jackson enter into a pact. They’d been standing in a returns line at a mall, one-upping each other about the miseries of being single during holidays. Just ahead of New Year’s Eve (surely among the more demanding of connection holidays), the two agree to be one another’s faux dates for the heavy-pressure night.
Briskly directed by John Whitesell, written by Tiffany Paulsen, “Holidate” won’t change your mind about the tread-worn challenges of romantic comedies, but its leads leverage their charms nicely. The film begins with Sloane arriving at her mother’s on Christmas. We get an eyeful of holiday excess: the blaze of decorations, the ugly sweater get-ups, the over-amped buzz of a family gathering. Sloane gets an earful about being a singleton: from her mom (Frances Fisher) as well as “aww, so sorry” pokes from her sister Abby (Jessica Capshaw), younger brother York (Jake Manley) and his too-soon-(for Sloane)-to-be fiancée, Liz (Cynthy Wu). Even her aunt Susan (a carnally winking Kristin Chenoweth) snagged a Santa Baby for supper.
As for Jackson, the handsome Aussie agreed to a sham Christmas date that goes sideways as soon as the woman’s parents greet him at the front door. When the “date” learns that he doesn’t share her intentions, the movie effectively announces its “not rated” but pretty much R-rated intentions.
Sloane and Jackson’s first ersatz date goes well enough, a couple of sweet asterisks notwithstanding. Although not-entirely-planned, they share Valentine’s Day. A certain camaraderie of cynicism finds them re-upping for more holidays together. Some make sense. Others find the increasingly frisky duo seizing on days that appear more about time spent together than about the actual holiday: a tequila-drenched Cinco de Mayo, for instance.
Sloane and Jackson’s agreement isn’t a friends-with-benefits proposition. The two agree that the arrangement will be strictly platonic. The audience, having been duly programmed for decades by the genre, knows where things will likely end. So it’s the pair’s zigs and zags getting there that intrigue. Their slow build to fondness and then more has a tug. It also makes an argument that not wanting desperately to be with someone creates the right emotional space to be with someone.
Romantic comedies are often promiscuous in their courting of the viewer’s fondness for the genre. Screenwriters have characters name-check other go-to romantic comedies. (Not unlike the way “Scream’s” young folks referenced horror flicks). Sometimes the gesture works, but often a movie damns itself in the comparison. “Holidate” nods more than a few times to some classics but also pulls off a slightly intergenerational treat with Sloane and Jack riffing on the Ryan Gosling version of Patrick Swayze’s “Dirty Dancing” scene from “Crazy Stupid Love.”
How much “Holidate” delights will depend on whether you take a rooting interest in these presumptive beloveds. Roberts (who did especially fun work as a witch in the “Coven” season of “American Horror Story”) is increasingly comfortable with an edge she can’t quite disavow onscreen. Here it reads as tart tongued and savvy to the rules of the game. Yet her eyes betray that Sloane can’t own up to her feelings. Sure she bemoans too much the one that got away — a French bore named Luc (Julien Marlon Saman) — but when things shift between her and Jackson (and shift they will), she looks scared. He does too, if a little bit less so. As the rules of their game change, confusion reigns. Sloane uses her older sis as confessor. Jackson listens to, and smartly discounts much of the advice of, his serial-dating friend Neil (Andrew Bachelor). One of the sure signs they’ve gotten closer with each date: They know how to hurt each other.
If you don’t immediately recognize all the activities Sloane and Jackson keep diving into over the year, it may be because they fall under the rubric of going out, dancing, partying. Those packed gatherings might unintentionally prick their own holiday melancholy in viewers during times of COVID-19. The only time anyone wears masks is for Halloween, and even then, the leads don’t don them because the camera loves their mugs too much. Roberts has a wide-mouth smile that evidently runs in the family. Bracey has a beckoning dimple so deep his stubble can’t conceal it.
The supporting cast bring their own appeal to the not-couple’s nearly year-long not-courtship. Manish Dayal exudes warmth as Farook, the kindly, sloe-eyed doctor Sloane’s mom Elaine tries to hitch her daughter to. “Hitch” being the operative word. As randy aunt Susan — an avowed practitioner of the “holidate” — Chenoweth has fun as the erotically, take-charge softie.
Although, Sloane and Jackson behave as if their romance is the least probable thing in this tale, it isn’t. Which is a twist in its own right.