“In the movies,” explains retired screenwriter Arthur (Eli Wallach), “we have leading ladies and the best friend.” This may be old news for anyone who’s paid money to see The Holiday, Nancy Meyers’ latest romantic comedy, but for one of its leading ladies, Iris (Kate Winslet), Arthur’s note is a revelation. Oh my god, she realizes, she’s been playing the wrong role. She gasps, “You’re supposed to be the leading lady of your own life, for God’s sake.”
Thank goodness that Iris has met Arthur, her neighbor for two weeks at Christmas. She’s swapped houses with a Beverly Hills-based movie trailer editor named Amanda (Cameron Diaz), who is, not incidentally, also playing a supporting role in her own life. The two women begin The Holiday facing parallel crises. Iris, a wedding columns writer at London’s Daily Telegraph, has finally come to see that the seeming love of her life, jauntily self-loving columnist Jasper (Rufus Sewell), is indeed a heel: at the paper’s Christmas party, he announces his engagement to “the girl in circulation on the 19th floor,” his eyes finding Iris (who is, officially, after all, his ex) as she stands rumpled and teary amid the tippled crowd. She smiles back, and determines that she needs a vacation.
And so she offers her home, an adorable cottage in Surrey (all storybooky and quaint, nestled in snow, with chimney puffing) for trade during the holiday; as it appears on Amanda’s computer screen, it does appear perfect, that is, the opposite of her own mansion (sunny, sunny, sunny, with multiple bathrooms and remote-controlled shades on the bedroom windows). As it happens, Amanda has need of her own getaway, as she has just discovered the cheatery of her live-in boyfriend, Ethan (Edward Burns). Standing accused in their driveway, wearing only his designer boxers, Ethan insists that he loves her only, but blames her insistent distance, her overwhelming dedication to her work, and okay, maybe his own weakness at the sight of his pretty, young assistant; Amanda, in a fit of Katharine Hepburnish leading-ladyness, punches him in the face, knocking him splat to the ground.
This display of “gumption,” as Arthur terms it, sends Amanda in to a tizzy. She rushes to her laptop, discovers Iris’ cottage, and the next day, literally, these apparently overpaid women are jetting in opposite directions across the Atlantic. Once ensconced in their new environments, they meet their dreamboats (who come, most conveniently, with careers that match their own). Book editor Graham (Jude Law) shows up drunk on the snowy cottage porch, expecting to be put up by his sister (Iris), but appears plenty happy to have sex with lonely, angry, and perfectly witty Amanda instead. Listening to her go on about what’s wrong with her life and also how she might as well take advantage of a chance to have sex with this “insanely good-looking” stranger who has appeared before her, Graham leans back into the sofa, eyes atwinkle, and observes, “You are quickly becoming one of the most interesting girls I ever met. You’re already better than you think.” Of course he would say this: he’s about to get some.
At this point the film cuts back to L.A., as it’s not so much interested in what happens after such set-ups. Unlike Amanda, who has been feeling put out by the smallness of the cottage and the difficulty of driving on the “wrong side of the road,” Iris is immediately charmed by L.A. True, it is rather bright (that’s what the remote-controlled window shades are for), but she’s quite thrilled by Amanda’s massive DVD collection that includes Gigli, as well as her exquisitely appointed home. Finding Arthur is another sign of her good fortune: she discovers him looking lost while out strolling with his walker (though he’s lived in the neighborhood for over 40 years, the houses have been rebuilt so often that he can’t remember where he lives), then invites him to dinner. When she wonders whether he’s “not busy” that evening, he crinkles appealingly: “Honey, I haven’t been busy since 1978.” If only he were 50 years younger.
Unfortunately, Iris must meet her age-appropriate new partner, namely, movie music composer Miles (Jack Black). He’s grappling with his own relationship troubles, in the form of a gorgeous young actress he introduces as “My Maggie” (Shannyn Sossamon), though he seems instantly attracted to Iris as well. While Black is typically too much in love with himself, he does bring a welcome energy to his role, which is, like the others, simultaneously underwritten and full of cleverish repartee. Ennio Morricone fan Miles is exceedingly sincere about his vocation, composing in his head no matter where he goes. He launches into a Jack-Blackian set-piece in a DVD store, amusing Iris by humming famous themes — Jaws, Gone with the Wind, Chariots of Fire — and so providing suitable diversion from the still hanging-around Jasper (he’s called to ask her help in editing his manuscript, claiming that he needs “some Iris”).
The fact that Iris even considers agreeing to look at his Fed-Exed pages reveals that she has not yet developed the leading lady “gumption” Arthur has described for her. She’s been watching the movies he’s put in a list (starring Irene Dunne and Barbara Stanwyck) and she’s slowing coming to see that gee, she has options. Informed of Jasper’s recent behavior, Arthur takes no time at all to pronounce the truth as you’ve understood it from frame one: “He’s a schmuck.” Iris agrees, of course, but she’s not convinced that she “deserves” better. She has yet to feel like a leading lady. And again…
The Holiday goes on for some 135 minutes, way too long. (The classics were snappy, under two hours.) Over this time, Meyers again trots out her formula, in which beautiful, wealthy, well-dressed characters articulate recognizable but abstract, clichéd “issues” (say, divorced parents, an inability to cry), as substitutes for more compelling details or developments. As such issues are easily fixed (or deflected) by finding proper partners, her plots tend to go through motions, with occasional delightful diversions (say, Arthur’s pinochle game with buddies played by Bill Macy and Shelley Berman). The finales are forgone. You know Iris and Miles will bond over their love of Arthur, that Amanda and Graham, for all their drunken fooling around, will fall in serious, committed love. (Following one night out, she worries that she doesn’t remember what happened; he reassures her, “Call me old-fashioned, but one doesn’t have sex with women who are unconscious.” Apparently, this earns him points.)
The cheat is that The Holiday pretends its happy endings are premised on the women realizing their capacities as leading ladies. Really, what they’re doing is finding the “right” men, not quite the same as finding “gumption.”