Let me start by saying: I don’t like hating things. I’m not good at it. (My pal Scaachi is way better at it. She’s a savant.) I like liking things. I like watching movies, watching shows, and even when they don’t stick the landing, I like to clap and say, “You tried!” I’m the kind of person who gets excited for the names in the credits because hey, at least they made an effort, and isn’t that the bravest thing you can do?
And here you’ll say: But if you like liking things, isn’t it much simpler to just take the high road? If you hate something, isn’t it better to just not write about it? After all, real people worked on this! They have families! Livelihoods! Reputations! Why not watch and then just move on to the next thing? This is already my standard operating procedure. Except every once in a while, something comes along that is so bad, it merits a break with tradition.
In October, Netflix released the rom-com Holidate. Emma Roberts stars as Sloane, a single woman who sure hates being alone on holidays because her family keeps asking when she’ll get a boyfriend. Through circumstances that vaguely resemble a meet-cute, she meets Jackson (Luke Bracey), a supremely sauceless man who also hates being alone on holidays, and they growl at each other (or something) until they agree to be each other’s holidates — a word repeated so many times, you might think the whole purpose of producing the movie is to make “fetch” happen.
On its face — which is the only way you can take this thing — the film is an inversion of the romantic comedy, what with the leads who promise not to fall in love, because love sucks and we all know this, but oops, love is a sneaky thing and it’ll getcha every time. The inversion gimmick is a pleasant mainstay of the genre, with some strong entries in the category — but in order to pull it off, one has to understand that a rom-com requires both (either?) romance and comedy, of which Holidate contains none. Not in a real way, not in a subversive way, not in an ironic way, not even by accident.
Holidate behaves like a real movie. It has a runtime and everything. If you look closely, there are sets and costumes and a cast. On occasion, that cast is called upon to perform what they might refer to as acting, though under no circumstances should you feel pressured to do the same.
King Bach and Kristin Chenoweth round out the rest of the cast, the latter of whom is way too good for this. We see Sloane and Jackson as their non-courtship courtship bumbles along, swinging from one holidate to the next. Impressively, Roberts manages to find chemistry with literally no one, whilst Bracey attempts to cosplay a Handsome Hemsworth (pick one) vibe without an ounce of the charm.
There is a delicate art to the Good Bad Movie (GBM). A GBM is endearing because despite the bad writing, the puzzling directing, the comically bad acting, it’s brimming with effort. Earnestness abounds. Over-the-top sincerity is the engine of the GBM — we, the viewers, can’t believe just how committed people are to the corny thing they’re making. A GBM should make you shout “Oh, so we really doin’ this, huh?” at least once every 10 minutes.
To that end, A Christmas Prince is a GBM. Rocky is a GBM. xXx is a GBM. These are movies that delight you in the joy the creators took in creating them, and you buy in because they do. Holidate has none of the features of a GBM: Every scene is drudgery, every joke is homework, every plot point is hell. The actors are going through the motions, and I guess you have to do it too.
I am pathologically incapable of not looking for a redeeming quality, so here’s what I’ve got: The score by Dan the Automator fades into the background just enough that you don’t notice it being particularly good or particularly bad, thus saving Dan the Automator from having to associate with this movie at all.
But this isn’t just about Holidate, a movie that exists and has a runtime and everything. This is also about the kind of shit you and I are willing to put up with now that we’re trapped in the Netflix Universe.
Cultural megaforces like Netflix, left unchecked, will continue to shovel out movies that shouldn’t exist. It’s a huge machine that has been emphasizing quantity over quality for years now, and the problem has gotten worse. In 2020 alone, Netflix was expected to spend $17 billion with a “b” on content. They’re paying so much money for new films. That content spend is expected to reach $26 billion with a “b” by 2028. The strategy is simple: Netflix would like to keep your eyeballs longer, so they’re making content in every category, lots of it, in the hopes that something, please, god, anything, will keep you scrolling. Because if you keep scrolling, they can return higher dividends to the shareholders, and isn’t that what life is about?
On occasion, throwing billions of dollars at people who know how to make stuff actually succeeds. The Queen’s Gambit is very good. Bird Box slaps. Selling Sunset is art. You’ll never hear a bad word out of me about Dead to Me. I am Sex Education hive.
However, for every hit, there are about 25 duds, and Netflix does not seem to care. They just keep spending the money to make more content in order to, fingers crossed, draw more eyeballs. For the love of god, Holidate has a whole Easter egg hunt sequence set to Ludacris’s “Move Bitch,” and they still had the thing made. That song is not cheap to license. I have not tried to license it, but I imagine Chris “Ludacris” Bridges would own all of my possessions and it wouldn’t cover the cost.
In theory, all of this is benign. So what if the streaming giant spent a bunch of millions on a bad movie? But this stuff begins to matter when you set it against the larger context. In a pandemic world, we are all at the mercy of streaming services — we look to them for relief, for a break from an unrelenting year. And what do they offer? Well, Holidate, prominently displayed in the Netflix Wants You to Watch This section, until you eventually cave. It’s, perhaps, why it was the 25th-most-watched straight-to-streaming film of all of 2020.
Kyle Chayka smartly traced the rise of ambient TV — content that serves as something to half-watch while you half-scroll your phone. Holidate fulfills the need perfectly. It resembles a movie (has a runtime and everything), and if you catch it from your peripheral view, you might even think it is one. All of this seems perfect for Netflix, which doesn’t care if you’re half there or half not-there, because your monthly subscription fee is in the bank.
Holidate is not good. It’s not the first bad thing Netflix has made, and it won’t be the last. But it’s the perfect representation of Netflix’s turn away from quality and toward quantity, bringing us a step closer to a world where the algorithm has enough content that vaguely resembles the form, enough to pass as the cinematic equivalent of Muzak while you scroll through Instagram.
It’s cold and chilly and pandemic-y out. It’s understandable if you want to turn your brain off and be swept by the conviction of a fun, bad Christmas movie. But if you’ve been lining up Holidate to do this work, your energy is better spent somewhere where actual joy can be found. I’d try The Princess Switch: Switched Again, a movie that actually swings for the fences with sincerity.●