Netflix’s new Christmassy rom-com is a real turkey, and will have you changing the station sooner rather than later.
You can’t fault Holiday Rush (Netflix) for its ambition — it does, after all, ask you to care about the most detestable cast of characters in recent memory. Unfortunately, its reach exceeds its grasp. If you’re anything like me you’ll actively wish to be rid of them from the moment they’re introduced and all throughout their feature-length temper tantrum. The only upside of this otherwise dreadful Christmas rom-com is that it doesn’t quite have enough under the tree to carry more than ninety minutes
The insufferable patriarch at the heart of this is Rashon ‘Rush’ Williams (Romany Malco), an inexplicably popular radio DJ and single dad who, along with his colleague, best friend and love interest Roxy (Sonequa Martin-Green), is fired from his cushy radio job when the station is bought and absorbed by a soulless network represented by Jocelyn ‘Joss’ Hawkings (Tamala Jones), who gets a couple of scenes to do irrationally mean things for no reason. Indeed, the reasons behind Rush and Roxy being let go are never really explained; they’re to be replaced by a lily-white blonde babe who would presumably be anathema to the sizeable audience they’d apparently amassed through sheer charisma and likability, none of which is actually on display in Holiday Rush.
Nevertheless, Rush suddenly finds himself unemployed right before Christmas, meaning that his lavish Scrooge McDuck lifestyle can no longer be financed and his spoiled-rotten kids — eldest daughter Mya (Deysha Nelson), twins Evie (Andrea-Marie Alphonse) and Gabby (Selena-Marie Alphonse), and college-age son Jamal (Amarr M. Wooten) — need to face the prospect of living like normal human beings for a change. You’ll pardon me if I’m not exactly overflowing with pity at their predicament.
The only voice of reason in the Wiliams family is Aunt Jo (Darlene Love), who had to share a single egg with her siblings and only got bacon “when the neighbors were cooking it on a windy day”. To their horror, the kids are forced to sell their mansion and move in with her, into the old family home, which is at least thrice the size of any house I’ve ever lived in. We’re supposed to root for, let’s be frank, a family who have to go from being absurdly wealthy to comfortably middle-class. Rush breaks the terrible news to them while they all eat dinner at a restaurant.
The kids are supposed to be grating; we’re to understand that they’re entitled brats, you see, but the problem is they never really become anything else, at least not until a contrived and saccharine finale, at which point they all just completely reinvent themselves in time for a musical number. The only one with any kind of discernable arc is Jamal, who at the start of Holiday Rush has just been accepted into Harvard and sees his father’s financial strife as him deliberately trampling all over his dreams, and by the end has shamelessly used his mother’s death from cancer as a convenient catch-all excuse for his behaviour. That isn’t to say that such a trauma wouldn’t irrevocably alter a kid his age, especially one forced to move back into the house he watched her die in, but until this point, it’s scarcely mentioned; it comes out of nowhere to justify an extremely selfish decision.
Rush’s late wife, Paula (La La Anthony), is indeed a figure in the story, sometimes a literal one — at one point Rush has a conversation with her gold-trimmed ghost, which beams with angelic light, laments having started out in a house with only one toilet, and then disappears for the rest of the film. But her presence is felt whenever Holiday Rush wants to serve spoonfuls of unearned sentimentality, so her untimely demise feels like a cynical tool for manipulating the audience rather than a fundamental part of these characters’ lives.
In fact, in ethereal form, Paula gives Rush permission to be with Roxy, and at one point the decision is made — rather arbitrarily — that they’re together now, I suspect simply to cause another familial rift and to facilitate a truly awful last-minute emotional gut-punch that Martin-Green almost manages to sell.
As well as being a romantic and a familial story, Holiday Rush also wants to be an underdog tale, but Rush’s plan to get back on top by buying the station where he started out and launching a new show there is mostly treated as an afterthought. It isn’t his idea in the first place, and it’s financed by fistfuls of capital that other characters just have lying around to give to him. We’re supposed to buy into the idea of him being in control of the station’s output and being able to play the music he wants to play, but that’s exactly what we saw him do at his old job moments before. Silly instances of antagonism like Joss convincing potential advertisers to blackball them comes across as petty and inconsequential, and Rush and Roxy’s former boss Marshall (Deon Cole) has an unconvincing arc crammed into two or three nothing scenes.
There are some ideas in Holiday Rush, but none worth having. Gags about crowdfunding and social media pressure could have led somewhere if there was anything happening to the family that you could imagine anyone might care about, but alas, the horror of having to settle for a six-foot Christmas tree is, I think, a travesty that can be overcome. The fact that the number of days left until Christmas regularly pops up on-screen as a kind of dramatic ticking-clock device is profoundly embarrassing since the only question that hangs in the balance is whether or not these babied little twerps get presents they don’t deserve in the first place.
There is one scene in Holiday Rush which strikes me as symbolic of the entire cynical enterprise. In it, Roxy holds the “baby” of a working-class woman she encounters while canvassing the neighborhood, and there’s clearly no kid; it’s just a bundle of rags being lovingly coo-cooed. That’s this film. It wants you to fuss it and get all misty-eyed and appreciate it for its cuteness and innocence, but there’s nothing there to care about. With Holiday Rush, Netflix has swaddled a real turkey.