Directed by: Nancy Meyers
Starring: Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Jack Black, Rufus Sewell
Saying that Nancy Meyers' The Holiday is the best of the year's Christmas movies to date isn't saying very much, since the competition so far consists of The Santa Clause 3, Deck the Halls, The Nativity Story and Christmas at Maxwell's. It doesn't take much to beat those. The problem is that what it's really trying to beat -- or at least be on equal footing with -- are films like Bridget Jones's Diary (2001) and Love Actually (2003), both of which it slavishly emulates, and doesn't come even close to matching.
All the elements are in place -- a strong cast and a good central premise with the loveless Iris (Kate Winslet) and Amanda (Cameron Diaz) trading houses and milieus -- but as is always the case when Nancy Meyers is at the tiller, the film works in fits and starts and contains enough excess baggage for an around the world cruise. Meyers has talent -- there's no doubt of that -- but it's a talent that can only be called frustrating. And never has it been more frustrating than it is in The Holiday.
It would be one thing if The Holiday could simply be dismissed as a lame knockoff of better examples of its genre -- and at times, it can. Kate Winslet's Iris is too painfully modeled on Bridget Jones to ignore -- right down to the inclusion of a skunk of a co-worker boyfriend (Rufus Sewell standing in for Hugh Grant). And it would take a blind person to miss the similarity of Cameron Diaz's Amanda, with her run through the snow to fix things with Jude Law's Graham, and the ending of Bridget Jones's Diary.
But just as you're ready to write the film off, Meyers will concoct a scene of genuine charm, or touch on feelings too universally human to ignore. Unfortunately, she'll then turn around and shoot herself in the foot by indulging her stars in their "specialties" (Jack Black at his most Jack Blackish "singing" movie scores in a video store). Or she'll beat you over the head with an already established plot contrivance. (There are at least three scenes establishing the fact that Amanda (Cameron Diaz) can't cry, including one where Meyers rips off her own previous work -- and it was just as grating with Diane Keaton in Something's Gotta Give). Making the film just that much more maddening, The Holiday is so entrenched in generic conventions that every setup is clearly leading to a predetermined ending.
Apart from the moments when Meyers really scores, she mostly gets by on the strength and appeal of her cast. Diaz, Winslet and Law have movie star appeal, and Jack Black has a certain quirky charm when he isn't trying too hard. But this only carries the film so far, especially when you realize that the appeal lies far more in the actors than in their characters.
As with her 2003 hit Something's Gotta Give, Meyers has set her story in an upscale world where people can disappear from their jobs for weeks at a time and jet all over the world at the drop of a hat. Meyers' idea of downscale is a picture book cottage in Surrey, while her idea of great sacrifice is someone having to fly (gasp!) tourist class. Even granting that romantic comedies are a fantasy business, Meyers seems more completely divorced from anything resembling reality than legendary gloss-merchant producer Ross Hunter.
The comparison isn't inapt, since Meyers quite obviously has a love affair with a grossly sentimentalized vision of "old Hollywood," seemingly oblivious to the fact that the Hollywood she idolizes would have never allowed anything as meandering as The Holiday to get out of the studio. The movies her characters reference and admire in The Holiday -- notably His Girl Friday (1940) and The Lady Eve (1941) -- were precision affairs, admirably tooled and honed so that they moved in a head-on manner at a brisk pace that allowed them to clock in around the 90-minute mark. Meyers' film, on the other hand, wanders all over the map for a butt-numbing 138 minutes. (Perhaps this explains why there's a prominently displayed copy of Gigli (2003) in Cameron Diaz's movie library.)
The crux of the The Holiday's problems lies in the overly long running time: There's at least 30 minutes of dead weight pulling the film down on every side. Nowhere is this more evident than in the movie's forced and utterly gratuitous final scene where Meyers insists on showing us what a good time everyone is having -- presumably to convince us that we've had a good time, too. The scene goes on and on to nowhere. Unlike the "Golden Age" filmmakers she reveres, she doesn't know when to stop, and there's no studio system at work to tell her, "Enough already." Rated PG-13 for sexual content and some strong language.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke