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Stream It or Skip It: ‘A Hollywood Christmas’ on HBO Max, a Meta Comedy About the Holiday Movie Industry

HBO Max stakes a claim in the holiday romance genre with A Hollywood Christmas, a meta movie about the making of an intentionally formulaic Christmas romance. But is A Hollywood Christmas too self-aware for its own good, or does it know exactly what it’s doing?


The Gist: Jessika Van (Paper Girls) plays Jessica, a director who just started production on her seventh holiday romance movie. Enter: Christopher (A California Christmas’s Josh Swickard), a new numbers guy hired (by someone he knows, of course) as part of a big shakeup at the network. Holiday movies are out and thrillers are in! This is going to be Jessica’s last holiday romance for this unnamed network unless she knocks this one out of the park. That’s when Jess’s assistant Reena (This Is Us’ Anissa Borrego) realizes that something magical is happening: Jess has gone from directing a holiday romance to being the lead in a real one. All Jess has to do is follow the formula that she knows and loves from watching 100 of these kinds of movies and not only will her career be saved, but she’ll end up with Christopher too.

A Hollywood Christmas - Jess and Chris
Photo: HBO Max

Well, that will happen if Jess actually buys into Reena’s theory… and if she can stop her truly dim stars (Riley Dandy and Zak Steiner) from clashing… and if she can scrounge up enough money to finish the film… and if she can fix this mediocre script without also breaking the formula… and — you see what Jessica is up against.

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: You could compare A Hollywood Christmas to any movie wherein the characters find themselves calling out the genre tropes of the genre movie they’re currently starring in, like Scream or Galaxy Quest. This is also the second Christmas romcom to mess around with the formula in this way, following Hallmark’s Lights, Camera, Christmas.

Performance Worth Watching: It will be a crime if this movie does not get Anissa Borrego on the radar of every single casting director for every single comedy series in Hollywood. She’s the right amount of plucky, weird, and self-aware — and her uniquely high-pitched voice just makes her innate comedic talent pop even more.

A Hollywood Christmas - Reena
Photo: HBO Max

I also hope the same happens for Riley Dandy, who plays romcom lead Ashley with a spacey energy that conveys just how smart the not-so-bright Ashley thinks she is. An early exchange between Ashley and director Jess gets one of the biggest laughs of the movie: “When Zoe barks, how do I know what she’s saying? … I don’t speak dog language.”

Memorable Dialogue: This movie knows the landscape of the Christmas movie genre, as Christopher explains to Jess: “The market is dominated by the two Christmas channels. It’s not a financial windfall for us to compete, so we’re trying a whole new direction for programming.”

A Holiday Tradition: Jess makes holiday movies. Every year. That’s what she does and it’s what she wants to do!

Two Turtle Doves: As mentioned above, watch Lights, Camera, Christmas to see one of the two dominant Christmas channels (Hallmark) take a stab at kinda the same thing.

Does the Title Make Any Sense?: The movie is very much a Hollywood Christmas, especially since it takes place in the heat of summer when most of these movies are filmed. Still, it would help if the movie had a title that conveyed the movie-within-a-movie/meta nature of it all. Reena and Jess extol the virtues of the holiday movie formula, so maybe something like A Very Formulaic Holiday Movie or Festive Formu-la La La. … I’m getting worse at this as the season goes on.

A Hollywood Christmas - actors in movie in movie
Photo: HBO Max

Our Take: We’ve reached the point of the TV/streaming holiday romance/Christmas romcom’s pop culture ubiquity wherein parodies and self-referential movies are really viable. We got two Naked Gun-style parodies last year (The Bitch Who Stole Christmas and A Clüsterfünke Christmas), and this year we’re getting meta movie-within-a-movie movies. And unlike Lights, Camera, Christmas, the Hallmark movie that I keep referencing, A Hollywood Christmas actually has some teeth to it — in a positive way.

I appreciate that A Hollywood Christmas actually uses Jess’ sincere love of the genre to underline a major point that haters miss: the formula is a feature and not a bug. And by having Jess love these movies — Jess, who is by all accounts a good filmmaker as well as just a very cool and professional adult person — the film gives a little bit of artistic heft to the whole genre. Yes these movies are fluff, but it takes real skill from real professionals to make that fluff pleasantly fluffy.

That being said, it feels like A Hollywood Christmas spends a lot of it’s standard 90-minute runtime confused about what kind of movie it is. It starts off incredibly strong with lots of incisive, laugh-out-loud jokes about how these movies are made — like a shot of Ashley and Michael taking off their winter coats to reveal a dickey and sleeveless button-up so they don’t die in the summer heat. Swickard and Van also have a great dynamic, with Swickard playing a clueless bro and Van playing an exasperated pro.

A Hollywood Christmas - Chris and Jess
Photo: HBO Max

But the movie loses a lot of that energy as it goes on, especially as Swickard and Van’s characters become softened by the romance movie rules. It even becomes unclear if Jess is actually stuck in a Christmas movie, and if she is, shouldn’t things be getting a lot weirder? And shouldn’t the pacing be a lot tighter? And shouldn’t Jess and Chris stay skeptical just a little bit longer? You start asking more questions to fill the place of jokes.

That’s a shame, too, because A Hollywood Christmas’s premise is interesting and the performances are fantastic across the board. It just feels like it needed a little bit more Christmas/movie magic to make it all come together.

Our Call:  A very, very timid SKIP IT — because again, the performances and idea are fun even if the execution ends up being a little dull.