December 10, 2006

MOVIES: The Holiday (Nancy Meyers, 2006)

Amanda (Cameron Diaz) is an editor of film trailers who's just dumped her cheating boyfriend. Iris (Kate Winslet) is a newspaper reporter who's just learned that the man she loves (but has never dared to tell) is engaged to someone else. Both are desperate to get away from it all, and meet at an online home-exchange service; they agree to swap homes for two weeks.

And we're off, for a remarkable assemblage of chick-flick romantic-comedy cliches. Of course, each meets and falls for a new guy. In London, Amanda meets Iris's brother, Graham (Jude Law); in Los Angeles, Iris meets film composer Miles (Jack Black).

You can see almost every key scene coming from the first five minutes: Iris dancing for joy at the sight of Amanda's palatial estate; Amanda, in high heels, trudging through the slush to Iris's quaint cottage (which looks like something that one of Beatrix Potter's animals would have lived in); the meet-cutes with the new beaux; the possible reconciliations with the old beaux; the "how can we make long-distance relationships work" conversations.

Since there's not an ounce of surprise or unpredictability in the story, the only chance writer-director Meyers has to make the movie work is the star power of her cast; she's lucky enough to have three actors with oodles of charisma, charm, and/or sex appeal. Kate Winslet, in what I think is her first major role as a contemporary British woman, is adorable and immensely likable; she does a particularly good job in the early scenes, convincing us that she's heartbroken about the end of a relationship that only really existed in her fantasies. Jack Black tones down his usual in-your-face aggressiveness, and he's surprisingly sweet. Jude Law, who is somehow even sexier here than usual, has a sort of Hugh Grant stumbling bad boy quality here that is tremendously endearing.

The problem is Cameron Diaz. To be fair, hers is the most poorly conceived and poorly written character, and even a good actress would have struggled with it. But Diaz is utterly at sea; she's shrill and hysterical, and it's impossible to understand what Law sees in her.

The movie's best performance, though, is a nice supporting turn from Eli Wallach, who plays a crusty old screenwriter who becomes a pal to Iris and Miles.

The ending -- and please, no complaints about spoilers, since none of this could possibly come as a surprise to anyone -- finds the two couples celebrating New Year's Eve together and dancing to the obligatory Motown oldie. None of them has seriously contemplated the challenges of a trans-Atlantic relationship, but by golly they're happy for the moment, and that's all that really matters. Which is pretty much how you have to deal with The Holiday; it's pleasant enough as it happens (despite Cameron Diaz), even if it doesn't hold up to any serious thought.

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