Director Nancy Meyer’s latest offering, in a line of stunningly-cast, unintelligent films (such as the recent box office successes What Women Want and Something’s Gotta Give), is The Holiday: an implausible, choppy (yet still so tempting and delectable) black hole of a movie that never really decides what is should be. Juggling just one too many overly dear stories for its own good, this insipid fluff ultimately sucks the life out of those unlucky enough to stumble upon it into its dark vortex of nothingness.
Amanda (Cameron Diaz) and Iris (Kate Winslet), strangers living in Los Angeles and Surrey (respectively), both are having major guy problems. Amanda and her boyfriend Ethan (Edward Burns) are in the middle of breaking up (he cheated on her — yeah, right!), while Iris is similarly doomed to spinsterhood because she can’t get over her last affair with her freshly-engaged ex, Jasper (a suitably sleazy Rufus Sewell).
On the spur of the moment, through the miracle of instant messenger and constant internet browsing, the scrappy, newly-single gals decide that they will exchange houses the following day for a little international, real-estate swapping therapy. Each woman trusts the other completely unknown visitor with their personal living spaces, with little to no discussion of their histories or credit scores (Amanda is in possession of such a massive DVD collection that it would be damn near impossible to not steal from her, no matter what economic bracket you might fall into). The rest of the messy film flashes back and forth between England and the United States, and in trying to achieve a too-prolific, globe-spanning cadre of sickly sweet storylines and characters, the film overall is a failure.
The last thing on either of the ladies’ minds is romance. Since this is a film directed by Meyers, both women run directly into the perfect man (at the perfect time) almost immediately. Iris’ hot brother, Graham (Jude Law, who at first glance is nothing but a caddish ladies man) wanders into Amanda’s life after a night of excessive drinking, and luckily he gets to have sex with the confused, lonely Californian. Things move a little more slowly for Iris and Miles (a toned-down Jack Black), a screenwriter who is an acquaintance of Amanda, but eventually romance virtually blossoms as they discover a shared love of old films and old-fashioned ideals.
Throughout The Holiday there is a clear love of nostalgia and Golden Age Hollywood. This sweet component is the most compelling reasons to watch the film. Renowned Actor’s Studio maverick Eli Wallach (who has been omni-present in movies since the ’40s) lends a very distinguished, solid air to the stale film as Amanda’s neighbor, a fêted screenwriter from the studio years (Winslet’s first glimpse into his office reveals a hefty bounty of trophies and accolades). To see the actor, who is well into his 80s, playing the lovable comic foil to Winslet’s fish out of water is the highlight of the whole shebang. It’s as though their scenes are a separate, much more interesting love story: the two film lovers bond over a passion for the oldies but goodies. The grand romances of Iris and Miles, as well as Amanda and Graham, take a back seat to this one. No that I believe for a second that a woman on vacation would choose to spend her time entertaining senior citizen neighbors, but it seems more plausible than Winslet being hot for Jack Black for some reason or another.
And since this is a Meyers film, even though the nostalgic aspects are mildly graceful, the contemporary characters’ every move is still riddled with cliché and schmaltz. It’s hard to disparage such a successful, hard-working female director (it’s not like there are so many women of Meyers’ age that are enjoying the kind of autonomy she has), but when stacked up to other celebrated female directors of her age (think Jane Campion or Julie Taymor), Meyers’ body of work comes across pitifully thin and geared mainly towards a large audience’s mass consumption, yet somehow, on this popular level, she manages to come out of it unscathed.
Not every film has to be The Piano, and The Holiday never tries to be anything than what it is: a paper-thin, conventional rom-com out to make big money. It’s a challenge to see any real artistic value in the formulaic plots and flat characterizations. Clearly, Winslet became involved for the comedic, commercial aspect of the picture, and why shouldn’t she? Given her prestigious dramatic track record (five Oscar nominations by age 31!), Winslet’s taking one for the team here is actually a refreshing counter-point to the grittier, more interesting work she usually does. Doing big business and the box office will no doubt enable Winslet to continue making independent, austere choices like her other 2006 turn, the much darker critical darling, Little Children. It is this balance between the high and low brow that clearly defines Winslet as one of the most fluid, intelligent actresses of her generation.
It’s a versatility that most actresses Winslet’s age can only dream of. It is pretty much safe to say that we have all come to expect Diaz’s not-surprising descent into a bad movie shill, appearing mainly in pictures of little personal artistic value (with maybe two notable exceptions:Being John Malkovich, and In Her Shoes). With the right co-star, the right director to rein her in, and the right tone, Diaz can be a stunner. Who doesn’t love goofy, ditzy blondes who crack wise and can go toe-to-toe with the guys? She’s no Carole Lombard, but she’s still positively likable, even when she’s trying her best to play a hardened bad-ass. Her range may be limited, but the scrappy way in which she gamely tries to expand her horizons is admirable. Diaz seems to be up for just about anything.
The Holiday never pretends to be anything of substance. At the same time, though, a woman like Meyers (working in a primarily male-dominated field), who is making money and giving interesting jobs to actresses of all ages should be celebrated for at least trying. Made in 2003, Something’s Gotta Give (starring a 60-year-old Oscar-nominated Diane Keaton) was one of the last big movies to bring in money and feature a woman of a certain age in the driver’s seat. Perhaps Meyer’s talent lies in her ability to draw such a powerful audience, thereby empowering her actresses to make more money, which will translate (in the future), to more prolific parts. She has taken the place of Penny Marshall (absent for many years now), as America’s leading female film director who gets the dream casts and the sterling box office receipts, and turns thin concepts into huge achievements. Meyers is the new best friend of any legit actress looking to cash in.