The Holiday

December, 2006, Comedy

Directed by:Nancy Meyers

Starring:Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Jack Black, Eli Wallach, Edward Burns, Rufus Sewell, and Shannyn Sossamon

The Holiday

Nostalgia permeates writer/director Nancy Meyer’s Holiday; it’s packed with references to Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, and Barbara Stanwyck et al and features a relaxed performance by Eli Wallach as an aging screenwriter who was once movie mogul Louis B. Meyer’s office boy. Ms. Meyer is clearly intent upon invoking the ghosts of romantic comedies past in this trans-Atlantic tale of two young women as unlucky in love as they are successful and satisfied in their careers. Overlong, verbose and frequently cutesy, Holiday nevertheless delivers yet another take on the kind of modern relationship that brought Meyers such success with her over-praised Something’s Gotta Give, one of the surprise hits of 2003. Diane Keaton provided that film with its best moments, a task assigned in Holiday to Kate Winslet, who raises the bar as the outstanding heroine in a Meyer film. Just watching her metamorphosis here is worth the price of admission.

Winslet, (Titanic, Finding Neverland) plays Iris, a successful columnist for one of the large London dailies. She’s achingly in love with Jasper, (Rufus Sewell) a fellow journalist who uses Iris to fill his bed and feed his ego even as he announces his engagement to someone else at the newspaper’s Christmas party. Devastated by news, Iris impulsively decides to swap houses over the holidays with Amanda, (Cameron Diaz), a workaholic producer of movie trailers in L.A., who’s just tossed her live-in boyfriend out on his ear because he admitted to sleeping around. More insulted than hurt by this infidelity, Amanda decides that a fortnight spent in Iris’s little cottage in Surrey would be the perfect way to sidestep the loneliness of the season in Southern California, so each women enthusiastically opts for a brief  respite in the other’s home. For Iris, that means living just off Sunset Drive in a house slightly smaller than Versailles, while Amanda will have to learn how to avoid bumping her head on the low beams in Iris’s tiny country cottage which uses a fireplace rather than central heating to fight off the winter chill. 

Neither of these women is interested in male companionship during their respective periods of self-absorbed mourning, but this is a romantic comedy, so of course men must pop up anyway. In Amanda’s case, that occurs when Graham, (Jude Law) Iris’s inebriated brother, shows up at the cottage door late in the evening expecting his sister to put him up for the night. Amanda takes one look at her handsome and charming intruder and beds him on the spot. Across the globe, film score composer Miles, (Jack Black) drops by Amanda’s house with his actress girlfriend Maggie to pick up a computer Amanda’s former boyfriend left behind. Miles and Iris flirt a bit and decide to get together because Maggie’s going out of town to play a small part in a movie being filmed on location.

And so it goes; Graham and Amanda circle each other warily, she’s in relationship recovery and he seems to spend a lot of time on the phone with a mysteriously unexplained pair of females named Sophie and Hanna. Iris meanwhile fills her days pining for Jasper and growing ever more attached to Arthur Abbott, (Eli Wallach) the grizzled old screenwriter who lives next door to Amanda’s sun drenched manse. Arthur sees in Iris a charm and beauty she’s unaware of; he introduces her to his cronies and prescribes a liberal dose of old-movie watching to give her some celluloid role models. Miles drifts in and out Amanda’s makeshift vacation, warbling melodies from famous films and listening to Iris describe how miserable and unfulfilled she’s become. Ah, the delicious tensions of missed connections and the agonies of unrequited love… 

The characters in romantic confections like this are doomed to act in stupidly unpredictable ways; that’s why audiences find them amusing and attractive. But tone is all important in this type of material and the wrong actor or actress can undermine even the most cleverly written role if they’re not capable of adequately personifying the character they’re playing. Such is the case with Ms. Diaz; while she’s capable of being adorably zany, (There’s Something About Mary, In Her Shoes) Amanda requires a level of intelligence the actress just can’t supply. She’s credible as the smartly dressed valley-girl grown successful in the movie biz, but as a suitable partner for Jude Law’s rakishly erudite book editor? Not a chance; she’s mentally overmatched and the twists and turns of her brief, on-again, off-again, on-again affair with the charming Graham serve only to reduce his appeal without increasing hers.

Ms. Winslet however, is another story altogether; her Iris sports just the right amount of innate decency and attractive vulnerability to make audiences root for her. The fact that she befriends the gnarled but insightful Arthur provides the two of them a platform to discuss the vagaries of love and sexual attraction without requiring any of the physical chemistry that entangles Amanda and Graham. As a result, Ms. Winslet walks off with every scene she’s in; if the resolution of her relationship with the moon-struck Miles isn’t as emotionally satisfying as it might be, Iris has more than enough appeal to justify bringing her back in a sequel, a al Renee Zellweger in the Bridget Jones films.

Diaz and Winslet get top billing here and so they should; while Law and Black are both adequate in their roles, The Holiday isn’t about how men deal with romantic love and relationships; it’s focused on how women deal with these issues, especially successful career women for whom work and career is every bit as important as it is for the men in their lives. If Amanda isn’t prepared to dissolve into the cozy warmth of Graham’s decidedly sophisticated English life, it’s because she has a business to own and operate which provides her with much-needed meaning; an actress more subtle and sophisticated than Ms. Diaz could had given Amanda more charm, (and this movie a lot more heft) by providing that tension with more plausible gravitas. 

Meyers writes charmingly brittle dialogue, but there’s too much of it here; the characters talk about the vagaries of love and heartbreak so often it’s a wonder any of them get anything else accomplished. Holiday’s length doesn’t help either; like a good striptease, brevity, when coupled with just a pinch of the unexamined, offers the best chance for heightened appreciation. While Iris is always worth watching, none of the other players is really interesting enough to justify the amount of screen time allocated to them. Meyers seems to recognize this and pads her work with a number of dialogue-free, extraneous bits designed to wordlessly express what she wants the audience to feel about her characters, but they fail to meet the director’s intent.

Yet in the spirit of the season, let it be said that in addition to Winslet’s captivating performance, Diaz sports her stunning wardrobe with great flair, Wallach’s curmudgeon is quietly effective, Jude Law will flutter a number of female hearts and two utterly charming female moppets combine to make this season’s escape from reality sufficiently satisfying to justify the price of a theater ticket.

The verdict? Take your best gal; she’ll love it and you’ll be able to justify dragging her to the year-end spate of male-oriented movies like Apocalypto and Blood Diamond.   

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