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‘Tis the season for sweaters, warm drinks, and oh yeah, holiday movies. Getting ahead of this year’s festivities, Hernán Jiménez’s “Love Hard” tries its hardest to win over romantic comedy fans with a modern tale of a dating app match gone awry. Some moments are sweeter than others, but overall, this cookie cutter rom-com has nothing more or less than what its subgenre demands.
Natalie (Nina Dobrev) is a woman in L.A. who has made a career out of writing about her terrible love life for a cringeworthy site. After a string of particularly rough disappointments, a friend widens her dating app’s search radius to include the whole country. Finally, she matches with a smiling face who’s exciting to talk to and charming. After a particularly long conversation, the long distance digital boyfriend pines that he wishes Natalie would be there for Christmas. At her friend and boss’ insistence (the latter wants another disastrous dating column out of the experience), Natalie travels across the country to Lake Placid, New York, to meet the man of her dreams. But when she gets there, Josh (Jimmy O. Yang) doesn’t look like the pictures he sent her. He used the photos of a former friend, Tag (Darren Barnet), to talk to women after being ignored on dating apps for so long. Outraged but now stuck in Lake Placid without her luggage, Natalie decides to stay and pass herself off as Josh’s girlfriend in order to impress his family. In turn, Josh promises to help her win over the man whose photos she originally fell for even if it’s as deceptive as what Josh did to her.
Although it doesn't have the yuletide joy I had hoped for, “Love Hard” has its endearing moments. Almost every scene with Natalie, Josh, and Josh’s family—which includes Grandma (Takayo Fischer), his dad Bob (James Saito), step-mom Barb (Rebecca Staab) and competitive brother Owen (Harry Shum Jr.) and his wife Chelsea (Mikaela Hoover)—is a winner, playing up the pressure on the faux couple to keep up the charade. However, Daniel Mackey and Rebecca Ewing’s script sometimes goes overboard, slipping from the “how sweet, how funny” kind of comedy to cheap cringe. This is perhaps the most egregious when Natalie downs shots at a bar for some liquid courage to try and seduce Tag. Unfortunately, the shots have a fruit she’s deathly allergic to, and her face balloons from the reaction. It’s a mortifying scene played for laughs, but it feels weirdly mean for an otherwise mostly pleasant comedy.
Another odd feature of “Love Hard” is that the story seems to have taken hints from trending topics to find some of its plot points. Online dating is ubiquitous, and catfishing—a person pretending to be someone else online—is popular enough that MTV had an entire series exploring the trend. The reason Josh gives Natalie for why he catfished her is because Asian men may find themselves discriminated against on dating apps. Natalie’s gripes about “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” seem to be taken straight from the number of articles that seem to perennially spring up about the song’s lyrics. Her repeated arguments about “Die Hard” as a Christmas movie? Same thing. These details, while timely, don’t seem to quite fit in with the story or characters as some of the other aspects of the movie. It’s as if these things were added in a later draft.
“Love Hard” may be more of an expressly Christmas movie than “Die Hard,” but I’m not sure it’ll warrant as many repeated viewings. Dobrev and Yang make the most of their parts, and give their characters an emotional edge, but it’s not enough to save them from the predictable moments, the simplistic comic misunderstandings, and the embarrassing set-ups. Some of the movie’s internal logic doesn’t quite come together either, like how Natalie strongly objects to even hearing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” on the radio but sticks around to help the guy who lied to her. You have to buy the whole sleigh ride, however bumpy things get, to feel the joy “Love Hard” wants to deliver. It’s a ride others may enjoy more than this Scrooge, but that’s why these movies arrive faithfully every season.
Now playing on Netflix.
Nina Dobrev as Natalie Bauer
Darren Barnet as Tag
Jimmy O. Yang as Josh
Harry Shum Jr. as Owen Lin
Lochlyn Munro as Rex
Rebecca Staab as Barb Lin
Darien Martin as Mike