There are two stories at work in Nancy Meyer’s new film “The Holiday”. One of these stories works, only occasionally veering into sitcom territory. The other stays firmly rooted in sitcom purgatory. Interestingly, the story that works also stars the better actress. I’ll give you one hint. The better actress isn’t Cameron Diaz.
Amanda (Cameron Diaz), the owner of a company that edits movie trailers, breaks up with her boyfriend, Ethan (Edward Burns). Because Christmas is just around the corner, she doesn’t want to spend the holiday alone, so she decides to travel. She explores a few websites and then comes across a home exchange program, decides on England and finds a photo of a cottage in Surrey, forty minutes outside of London. The owner of the cottage, Iris (Kate Winslet), a columnist at a London newspaper, is trying to come to terms with her unrequited love of Jasper (Rufus Sewell), another columnist at the paper. She still holds out hope, until his engagement to another woman is announced at the company Christmas party. That night, she receives an e-mail from Amanda. “Is your cottage still available?” The next day, each is jetting off to the other’s countries. Iris is overjoyed to find Amanda’s home has a large kitchen, a gym, a swimming pool and more. She immediately makes herself at home. She meets Arthur (Eli Wallach), an aging widower who lives next door. Arthur used to write movies, in the 40s, and Iris is immediately drawn into his tales of old Hollywood. One day, Miles (Jack Black), a film composer, stops by to pick up some of Ethan’s things. After a while, they form a friendship and help each other deal with their respective relationship problems. In England, Amanda soon realizes the error of her thinking (naturally, the first thing you want to do to keep from feeling lonely is to fly to a foreign country, alone, for the holidays) and is ready to fly back to Los Angeles when Graham (Jude law), Iris’ brother arrives on her doorstep. They immediately sleep together and Amanda decides England isn’t such a bad place after all.
“The Holiday” continues a trend established by writer – producer – director Nancy Meyers. For every hit, she follows with two or three flops. She made “Baby Boom” and followed that with some forgettable films. In the last few years, she has made “What Woman Want” and then “Something’s Gotta Give”, a critical and financial hit starring Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson in one of their best performances. So that makes “The Holiday” a…
Actually, it isn’t a flop. Not exactly. It is just extremely uneven.
Let’s start with the good.
Kate Winslet has always been an extremely likable and believable actress. In each of her films, she is able to create a character we can believe in, even when the story veers off into fantastical realms. A large part of this ability comes from her extremely ‘normal’ looks; Winslet is very pretty and nice to watch, but she isn’t a bombshell. She looks like a normal person, which makes it easier to accept her in this type of role.
As Iris, she makes the character sympathetic, interesting and intelligent. When she receives the news of Jasper’s engagement, she travels home in a fog. Upon her arrival, she immediately lets the water works flow and she can’t seem to stop. As soon as she arrives in Los Angeles, her joy at the sight of Amanda’s home is almost palpable; most of us would also be overjoyed to find a mansion at our feet, ready to use for our holiday. When she meets Arthur, she befriends him out a mixture of human interest and neediness. After she gives him a ride home, she realizes he is a lonely old man and invites him to dinner where he begins to share stories of his days in old Hollywood and she becomes entranced.
Then, she meets Miles. He is in a relationship with an actress, Maggie (Shannon Shassoman, “A Knight’s Tale”) and even though he feels a little bit of a spark, he is clearly in love with his girlfriend and just wants to be friends with Amanda. They form a bond as they work on an event featuring Arthur, growing closer and closer. Then, his relationship with Maggie changes and they each demonstrate their growing attraction.
The key to this story, its believability, is that it is played fairly straight. There are occasional moments when it veers into sitcom territory, such as when Black starts singing the signature tunes of his favorite scores, but for the most part, it is believable, sweet and sincere.
Black is also surprisingly good as Miles. It is by far his most natural, believable performance in many years. Because he is in a relationship with Maggie when he meets Iris, he isn’t able to show his feelings. But there is an attraction there and they become friends, both becoming involved with Arthur’s life. Then, when he realizes he has been cheated on, Miles realizes he has the perfect mate standing right in front of him.
Both Iris and Miles share similar relationship troubles and they compliment each other nicely. When Mile‘s ex-girlfriend says she wants him back, he naturally runs to her side, much like Iris is willing to drop everything for Jasper. The moment when they each realize their current relationships are not going to work is also handled well and believable. As they develop a bond, we watch with interest.
Then there is the Amanda story. Two of the reasons Amanda’s boyfriend cheats on her are: she is unable to cry and she is obsessed with work, to the point that she had an edit suite installed in her home. Meyers seems to feel these two items allow her license to make Amanda as much like Lucy Ricardo as possible. Throughout the film, we see shots of Cameron Diaz trying to cry, squinting her eyes up, in an attempt to be emotional. These come off as fake as they sound. Perhaps a more talented actress would have been able to make this work. Perhaps. Early in the film, Amanda visits her edit suite and watches the newest trailer her assistant has finished, an action film featuring Lindsay Lohan and James Franco (a nice touch of comedy since the actors are actually in the trailer and it appears to be very ‘Hollywood’.) Later, “Holiday” shows us a trailer version of Amanda’s relationship woes, complete with grave, serious narration. Later, the narration returns, but no visual. They didn’t take this joke far enough. It is a funny idea; naturally, anyone so obsessed with their job would begin to see everything in familiar terms. But to only see one trailer depicting her sad love life? This isn’t enough.
Throughout the film, Diaz is always talking, running off at the mouth, making Amanda an extremely annoying character. In every scene, she launches into a lengthy monologue about some state of her relationship with someone. Amanda and Graham start to make jokes about her incessant talking, but it doesn’t make the character more believable. At one point, she complains about all of the books she hasn’t read. Yeeeeesssshhhhh!
The entire film is grounded in a world of fairy tales. From Iris’ snow bound cottage to the fact both women jet off to a foreign country to share their homes the day after they meet, this is clearly not a story happening in the real world. At one point, after Iris meets Arthur, he talks about the “Meet Cute” moments in romantic comedies. “A man and a woman go to a department store. Each wants to buy pajamas, but the man says he just needs the bottoms and the woman says she just needs a top. That’s a Meet Cute moment”. “The Holiday” attempts its own Meet Cute. Graham arrives on Iris’ doorstep stinking drunk. Because his sister left so quickly, he doesn’t know she is gone until he meets Amanda. After a brief conversation, they realize neither wants a relationship, and Amanda is planning to leave the next day, so they, naturally, decide to sleep together. This is a phenomenally bad idea. Not only does it rob the film, or at least this story’s part of the film, of any romance, it makes both Amanda and Graham slightly unlikable. Yes, Graham is good looking and Amanda is attractive, but why would they sleep together five minutes after they meet? The relationship has nowhere to go from there, except down.
Because Jude Law’s Graham is in the Amanda story, he naturally suffers by association. But Meyers is clearly trying to amp up the charming factor of Law’s persona. Many people have compared him to Cary Grant and “The Holiday” seems to be trying to encourage this. Graham is from Surrey, where Cary Grant was born, a fact not lost on the film as it is mentioned in the dialogue. Then, in one scene, Law dons glasses which look extremely similar to the same type of glasses worn by Grant in the classic Howard Hawk’s comedy “Bringing Up Baby”, yet another fact I doubt is lost on Meyers. So, throughout the film, Law appears charming and attractive and every bit the leading man he should be. If he would only appear in better films.
Eli Wallach has a sweet turn as Arthur, the aging widower living next door to Amanda. As he and Iris form a friendship, Iris learns the Writer’s Guild has been pestering him to let them host a salute to him. She also learns they want to do it next week, yet another fairy tale element of the film. This allows for Iris to still be in town for the big event, but is a completely implausible story point. These types of events take months to plan. That aside, it allows for Arthur and Iris to work towards this event and the moment Arthur steps into the auditorium is a nice moment.
The final moment of “The Holiday” is easily the worst conclusion I have seen in a film all year. It almost seems like Meyers had no idea how to end the film, felt it was necessary to have at least one scene with both Winslet and Diaz and came up with what ends the film. It doesn’t work. At all. It seems like one of those bad films from the 60s or 70s, when all of the main characters start dancing at the end of the film, as though there is simply not enough money left to shoot that final scene, the one that provides a resolution to the story. Yes, it seems exactly like that.
“The Holiday” is a mixed bag. Some might enjoy the story with Iris and her two friends, and Arthur. But you will have to sit through an interminable amount of overacting on the part of Cameron Diaz. I’m not sure the film is worth that agony.