Christmas is a time to Love Hard … or is it? (movie review)

(image courtesy Netflix)

Christmas comes with a lot of expectations. A LOT.

Many of them are delightfully festive and tinsel-draped, some are not but one thing is for sure – finding love at Christmas comes with a host of problems, not least the idea that in the midst of falling snow, twinkling lights and jollity aplenty, that happy-ever-after is pretty much a foregone conclusion.

That is, unless you’re L.A.-based writer Natalie Bauer (Nina Dobrev), who spends her days detailing her sad and sorry excuse for a love life for the car crash voyeuristic readers of an online blog run by Lee (Matt Finocchio) and who, after deciding to entrust to the perfect man, Josh (played by Jimmy O. Yang) way over in Lake Placid, New York on a dating app and flying to meet him for the holidays, find he is not even remotely as advertised.

Natalie has been royally catfished and at Christmas too, all her hopes and dreams of love sweet love, encouraged by feisty bestie Kerry (Heather McMahan), ripped to shreds like so much reindeer-bedecked wrapping paper.

While it’s perfect fodder for her lovelorn column, something that delights Lee no end, Natalie is crushed but this being a romantic comedy, and a great one at that, she decides to stick around and pretend to be Josh’s girlfriend for Christmas and in exchange Josh, who is operating at a substantial trust deficit, something Natalie points out to him repeatedly and justifiably so, will set her up with hunky, outdoorsy friend Tag (Darren Barnet), whose photos were the ones Josh used on his app.

It’s a weird situation but no weirder than many other rom coms where reality is suspended to a significant degree, all the better to tell a story of love found, and of course it, that’s not even slightly a spoiler, in the most unusual of circumstances.

The premise alone should send up a slew of warning flags since why on earth would you even come close to trusting someone who lied and deceived to such an epically abusive degree?

But here’s the thing, and it’s central to why Love Hard, the title inspired by Natalie’s favourite Christmas movie Die Hard – let the debate on its festiveness begin; for the record, this reviewer is Team Christmas – works so well – Josh is actually a decent, caring, sweet and thoughtful guy who did something dumb to find love.

As Natalie gets to know him better in person, watched on by parents Bob and Barb (James Saito and Rebecca Staab respectively) and grandmother June (Althea Kaye), she begins to realise that the Josh she talked to on the phone for hours and hours at a time, who was funny, clever and quip-savvy, is the same guy she’s with right now.

His bout of rampant deception, and at Christmastime no doubt, was out of character and as Natalie predictably discovers that Tag, while hunky and lovely in his own way, is all pretty and not much depth, she comes to the epiphanic understanding that Josh is her guy.

There’s no way we weren’t going to reach this point because while it’s a joy to watch and cosy, warm and delightful, it is blindingly obvious about where it’s narratively heading but that’s not such a bad thing – all rom coms basically play in the sand pit, some doing it better than others and Love Hard, all picture perfect decorated houses and carols and present unwrapping by the tree, is right up there with the good ones.

It works because while Josh’s initial deception is reprehensible, he demonstrated again and again while he and Natalie were talking on the phone – let’s ignore why they never spoke via Zoom or FaceTime etc in this age of pandemic-inspired online conversations and get-togethers – and again while they are face-to-face that he’s the kind of person you want in your corner.

That’s never more clearly illustrated that when Natalie, seeking to impress Tag with her non-existent rock wall-climbing prowess, freaks out at the top of the “cliff” and has to be talked down, gently and with real concern by Josh who goes to extraordinary lengths to make sure Natalie is protected.

Again, he could’ve started by being honest at the start but as he points out, he likely would never have got a chance to take it further, something Natalie reluctantly concedes; doesn’t justify the deception but helps explain it at least.

All too aware that Love Hard is dancing on some thin consent-wise in the #MeToo era, it takes opportunities throughout the film to combat any idea that Josh is some sleazy inducer, luring unsuspecting women to Lake Placid under false pretenses.

In one scene, the Lin family, including Josh’s older super-competitive and way hotter (naturally) brother Owen and wife Chelsea (Mikaela Hoover) go carolling in full Hollywood Christmas film fantasy regalia to an old peoples’ home and Josh volunteers for he and Natalie to sing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, a song that has in recent years been pilloried for its date rape lyrical allusions.

Natalie hates the song and is aghast that Josh, whom she’s starting to like (but of course can’t show that just yet because it’s early-ish in the story and she’s still in full snag Tag mode) wants to perform such a terrible song; Josh, however, surprises, completing rewriting the man’s side of the duet that crafts the guy as the one encouraging her to go home, the white knight there to rescue her before things get out of hand.

It’s not the perfect antidote to some of the film’s strangely deceptive elements but it bolsters the idea that Josh is a good guy, the kind of person you want by your side for the duration of Christmas, and yes, well beyond.

Wittily written and bursting with real chemistry between Dobrev and Yang, who gives a heartwarming performance as a good guy who simply wants to be noticed and does some really stupid stuff to make that happen, Love Hard is one of those rom coms that looks a little cardboard cutout dubious in the trailer but which comes alive with real vivacity and love-filled joy as it tells a well-mapped out story very well.

Looking like a Christmas wonderland sprung to life, with the Lins’ family house looking like something Clark Griswold would be proud of, Love Hard is an unexpected pleasure, taking its promising but slightly dicey premise and making real romantic hay with it of the life-changing festive kind as it reaffirms that nice guys and gals can finish first, that looks aren’t everything and maybe all those weighty expectations about Christmas may actually come true sometimes to the sigh-heavy swooning of all.

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