It’s like the people behind Love Hard asked themselves, “What would happen if we used a tried and true holiday rom-com formula with perfectly fine actors in all the roles, but we made sure that none of them have any real romantic chemistry together?” Just none. Picture trying to light fireworks that have been sitting in a damp cellar for twenty years and you’ll have the right idea. And then—maybe to distract us from the lack of sizzle and fizzle—they chose to jam a lot of extraneous bits and bobs of storylines, very shouty side characters, and some questionable jokes around the edges. The end result is…not a terrible holiday movie, but one that really had the potential to be so much more charming and fun.
In a voiceover, Natalie (Nina Dobrev) tells us how Greeks believed that humans originally had four arms and four legs and two heads and blah, blah, split in two, blah, blah, and we’ve been searching for our “soul’s equal” ever since. “If that’s true,” she says, “then Zeus is a real asshole.” Uh, yeah, Natalie. It’s, like, well-established that he can be a real pill. Just ask Hera, for example. I’m digressing. My real point is that I don’t love when rom-coms start with this pseudo-philosophical, intellectual approach to love crockery. People are searching for love. No need to justify it with faux academia. It’s what people have always done. It’s why we watch rom-coms.
Anyway, Natalie lives in Los Angeles and writes a pseudonymous column called “Always a Bridesmaid” (ew, ew, ew) about her many dating disasters. This apparently pays well enough for her to live alone in what appears to be a very nice abode with a large tile bathtub in West Hollywood. I have so many questions. What she really wants is to find The One, but she fears her picker is broken. (This is not a phrase I knew would make me gag until I watched this movie, so it’s been a real personal journey for me.) Her Overly Loud and Problematic Best Friend Kerry (Heather McMahan) suggests that she’s got to open up her horizons beyond a five mile radius (Natalie is deeply concerned about the cost of gas, which is fair), so Kerry resets Natalie’s dating app to include the whole entire United States.
Almost immediately Natalie matches with a guy from Lake Placid, NY named Josh (Jimmy O. Yang) who seems just about perfect. He’s tall, handsome, and outdoorsy. Natalie isn’t actually outdoorsy, but, you know, it always looks good on someone else. The two start texting, and banter all night about whether Love Actually or Die Hard is the better Christmas movie. Fine, it’s cute, but I would also be okay to never hear either movie mentioned again in a debate about Christmas movies in a Christmas movie. (Woah. That got very meta, but you know what I mean.)
Kerry points out that he seems like quite the catch since he’s “Asian American, speaks three languages. He’s a world traveler, but hasn’t been to any places on the watchlist.” Um, what the fuck is Kerry talking about with the watchlist? Is she really implying if he had traveled to certain countries it would have been problematic because…Because why, Kerry?!? You think it would have automatically made him a terrorist or something, Kerry?!? I mean, it’s good to just lay your xenophobic cards right on the table from the start, I suppose. Ugh.
The obvious problem with Josh is that Natalie has only seen photos of him. How could this problem be solved using that small computer she carries with her everyfuckingwhere? What was that you said? Correct! By video chatting with him! Is that what they do? OF COURSE NOT! Instead after some wrestling with Kerry leads to an accidental phone call, he sends her a photo holding a sign that says Bye Natalie, which would only make sense if he were A) being held hostage or B) catfishing her. (She could also research him using any number of internet search engines and/or social media platforms, which she also does not do.)
The two of them continue to text and talk by phone, but never use the video function on their phones. They send each other Dick pics—he sends her one of Richard Nixon and she sends him one of Andy Dick—and this is actually quite funny and charming and I wish more of the movie had been made up of more moments like this one. They sleep all night with the phone line open and feel generally incredibly connected. All of this is very good rom-com movie content. Josh drops a hint that he’d love to spend Christmas with Natalie, and she decides to drop everything and fly across the country to surprise him. (This is, just in general, a really bad idea. Are holidays really the time to pop in unannounced into someone’s life? Things get stressful enough around holidays. Add to that a person you’ve never met in person showing up on your doorstep?)
Her editor Lee (Matty Finochio), who is just a bizarre enough of a human that I can’t look away, is at first opposed. The last thing he wants is for Natalie to end up in a happy romantic relationship therefore ending her popular column. But once he hears that she’s never met Josh in person and the trip is likely to fail miserably, he raises his shake weights (yes, actual shake weights) in agreement. I really wish Lee were not constantly educating Natalie about herself and her love life. It’s just such a tired trope that a woman has to learn about herself from a man. Lee even shows up at the end to open Natalie’s eyes to the truth about her dating past and present, and there is literally nothing about this man that leads me to believe he would have that kind of insight.
Off to Lake Placid she goes! In addition to not knowing about the video chat feature on the phone, she also doesn’t know about the many weather apps, which must be why she shows up dressed for late Spring. Her luggage gets lost, so she’s stuck shivering while she waits for her Uber, which is driven by an old high school stoner buddy (Fletcher Donovan) of Josh. He offers her kiwi as a snack, which is important because Natalie is allergic to kiwi and we have been notified of this very explicitly at least once before. It’s possible something is going to happen with kiwi and also that the writers, Daniel Mackey and Rebbeca Ewing, don’t think very highly of our intelligence.
Anyhoodle, things are not so placid in Lake Placid when Natalie realizes that Josh doesn’t look at all like his photos. He’s a short, glasses wearing, shy, nerdy-type guy who lives in his parents’ basement. Add to that, his entire family is way too impressed to find a full-grown woman on their doorstep looking for Josh.
It turns out he “borrowed” the face of a local guy and former friend named Tag (Darren Barnet) who loves rock climbing, Henry David Thoreau, and red meat. (For the record, Natalie dislikes all these things, but she really likes the way his face looks.) We’re supposed to believe Josh’s actions are somehow justified because of his low self-esteem, his relationship with his spotlight-hogging brother Owen (Harry Shum, Jr.), and his family’s low romantic expectations for him. But isn’t this just the same dangerous “nice guy” line twisted a different way? It feels a very slippery slope to validate his actions this way. On the other hand, to make the movie work, we have to believe that, in this fictional universe, it’s a forgivable act.
In a rage that she’s been catfished, Natalie goes off to the local bar where she stumbles across Tag, and decides she will woo him with that time-honored tradition of sexily dancing while singing Karaoke. Is this wholly and completely out of character for Natalie? Seems like it! Does it make any sense at all that she would do it? Nope! Except! That just before she hops on stage she grabs someone else’s shots, which are (you guessed it!) made with kiwi! So, while everything starts off great, and Tag and his friends are impressed by her gyrating and singing while she has her back to them, when she turns around she looks like a puffer fish has replaced her face. Gasp! They are politely horrified! She is embarrassed!
I have so many questions! Do people not understand how severe allergic reactions work? She would likely feel nauseated. Her mouth would feel weird. Her throat would be closing. And your face doesn’t swell up to three times its usual size without you having a small inkling. Whatever. I’m mostly annoyed that this whole scene and several earlier lines of dialogue were all just a setup for this bullshit. I mean, I guess maybe it’s supposed to be symbolic of not judging people by their outside appearances, but it still just feels like bullshit. And then she gets saved by Josh? What. The. Fuck? No. She would have had her hand on the epi-pen at the first fuzzy feeling on her tongue.
So! Finally, after half an hour, we get to the real setup: In exchange for pretending to be his girlfriend for the week, Josh agrees to set Natalie up with Tag and feed her all the information she needs to know to impress the pants off him. (Well, not literally impress the pants off him because this is an all-around pretty chaste rom-com. More like impress his lips onto hers for one very brief kiss.) Natalie will pretend to like all the things he likes. That, my friends, is always a winning plan that never ends poorly. The writers of the movie will pretend this is the equivalent of doing what Josh did by pretending to have a whole other face and body. It is not the same. It’s as clear as mud why Natalie decides to stay instead of cutting her losses, gathering this fodder for her next column, and heading back to Los Angeles as quickly as possible. I suppose she’s spent so much time believing that Tag’s face belonged to the one that she just can’t let go of the idea. Of course, the movie wants us to believe that it has more to do with her attachment to Josh. Both of which, again, only work in the universe of this movie.
Things are going to get wildly out of hand on all accounts for a little while. Josh and Natalie are going to have to rush around town to keep ahead of their lies. I’m going to be annoyed that Josh is going to have to “save” Natalie from her fears while rock climbing. You guys, Natalie is, like, a whole person living alone in Los Angeles. Why can she suddenly not do anything without a person with a penis holding her hand? Natalie’s friend Kerry will say something about her sponsor calling while pouring whiskey into her coffee cup, and my neighbors will be concerned by my howls of rage about addiction being made into a joke. Natalie will be shocked to learn that Tag doesn’t like or celebrate Christmas. We will not be surprised by this because it is a law of the land that one character must dislike Christmas in all Christmas movies. Josh will have a whole subplot about making Just for Men Candles that is so bizarrely and brazenly sexist that I completely block it out until my friend reminds me about it. Older people will be educated about online dating and dick pics. Josh’s overbearing and somewhat bullying brother Owen will show up and try to steal the spotlight. Owen’s wife will say things that are not so smart, and I will strain my eyeballs rolling them at this stereotype. Josh and Natalie will grow closer and closer without even realizing it. Natalie will overcome some fears and have some Important Realizations about herself and honesty. Sadly, again, Natalie is either being saved by men or having her realizations pre-explained by them, which makes her experience feel less independent. Josh will have some Important Realizations about his perfect older brother and his father. The story of Josh and his brother is mostly communicated through Owen’s facial expressions, rather than any real plot development. Tag will have some Important Realizations about Die Hard.
But look, my kvetching aside, Love Hard is not without its charms. There’s a reason the story of two flawed people fumbling their way into each other’s embrace gets adapted and retold again and again. And the individual actors in this movie are endearing. While Yang and Dobrev lack romantic chemistry, they’re actors who bring humor and appeal to their scenes. Like, the part when they’re hiding from the local paper boy and end up problem solving Josh’s real dating profile. Or the aforementioned Dick pic swap. While there’s very little material to work with, Josh’s family brings a certain amount of warmth and grounding to the movie. In one scene toward the end, there’s a moment of real connection and vulnerability between Josh and his father that made me wonder why we couldn’t have more nice things. Side note: James Saito generally does make anything he’s in better. Because of the duplicity involved, the movie has two Asian-American male leads, which isn’t an endorsement catfishing, but does feel like a plus in this particular case. I certainly hope this part helps Jimmy O. Yang land more romantic leads because he’s entirely likeable and appealing. And for those of us who enjoy watching Darren Barnet as Paxton Hall-Yoshida on Never Have I Ever, but feel icky because he’s playing a high school student, this is a real opportunity to fully enjoy him as a thirty-year-old man. (Wow, that sentence sounded far less creepy in my head.)
Here’s the thing, this movie has some charms and some laughs. Certainly, there are far worse YuleTubing choices than this one, but, still, Love Hard has some aspects that make it hard to fully love. (I’m sorry. I’m sorry, but it was right there.)