Having already gotten her feet wet within the romantic comedy genre with 2000's "What Women Want
" and 2003's "Something's Gotta Give
," writer-director Nancy Meyers opines that what worked well once might work doubly well if she ups the ante to two love stories. Thus, the viewer gets simultaneous romances in different countriesone in Los Angeles, California, and the other in Surrey, England. While Meyers tries her best to avoid dumbed-down plotting where misunderstandings between couples could be solved in a matter of seconds if the characters were smart enough to say what needs to be saidthis is usually the kiss of death for this type of moviethat doesn't make the film she has wrought any less bland. And for a filmmaker who is notoriously long-winded as it is, two separate story arcs means a really overlong running time of 138 minutes and editing that needs a sharper pair of cutting shears. Epic love stories are one thing, but this one is intended only to be cute, fluffy and at least a half-hour shorter.
Overworked, emotionally shut off, and unlucky in love, movie trailer-maker Amanda (Cameron Diaz) decides on a whim that what she really needs is to leave behind her baggage in Hollywood and take a vacation for herself over the Christmas holiday. While surfing the net for getaway spots, she comes upon an ad for a cozy cottage in the English countryside. The owner from across the pond is Iris (Kate Winslet), a sad sack who can't get over her infatuation with an ex-boyfriend (Rufus Sewell) who insists on giving her mixed signals despite plans to marry another. A holiday is likewise exactly what Iris needs to rejuvenate her soul, and before long the two strangers have swapped homes, cars and lifestyles for a planned two weeks.
Looking forward to keeping to themselves for some solo rest and relaxation, two men unexpectedly enter their lives and make a big impact. For Amanda, she is afraid to get too close to Iris' sensitive and handsome older brother, Graham (Jude Law), and yet she can't help but acknowledge that she clicks with him unlike anyone else she has ever known. Back in L.A., Iris befriends well-regarded, long-retired elderly screenwriter Arthur Abbott (Eli Wallach), immerses herself in classic cinema, and takes a liking to sweet-as-a-puppy-dog music composer Miles (Jack Black).
"The Holiday" is a pleasant diversion, but that is all it is, no matter what the mountainous length and leisurely, dialogue-heavy pacing suggest. The film only occasionally engages, and that is mostly due to the winning performances from Kate Winslet (2006's "Little Children
") and Cameron Diaz (2005's "In Her Shoes
"), who make Iris and Amanda into good, likable people you don't mind getting to know. The pat, achingly predictable stories they have found themselves in aren't worthy of their talents or the viewer's time. It is obvious by the first thirty minutes how things are going to play out, both in their relationships with Graham and Miles right down to the payoff involving Amanda's inability to cry and Iris' hang-up over a no-good ex.
In juggling her two femme protagonists, director Nancy Meyers often loses sight of one or the other, depending on who is dictating screen time, and also fails to take advantage of the diverse locales. In two weeks' time, Iris is never seen exploring Los Angelesa place she has never beenand spends most of her time going to dinners and renting movies. Likewise, Amanda coops herself up in Iris' idyllic Surrey cottage and, instead of taking time for herself, which is the whole point of the trip, apparently arrives at the conclusion that only a man will be able to complete her. So much for female empowerment. As for Iris, she does reclaim direction and strength over her weaknesses, but her discovery of a genuinely kind man in Miles takes too long. It is nearly the third and final act before these two start flirting and spending any substantial time with each other.
When measured out, Cameron Diaz is probably on screen more than Kate Winslet; they are both splendid and fully at ease in their roles, but it Winslet who steals the show. Infrequently given the chance to be funny, Winslet turns out to be a natural at comedy all the while delivering a flesh-and-blood creation who feels real rather than a script construct. When she first walks into Amanda's lovely, state-of-the-art Hollywood abode, the joy emanating from her face and body language is infectious. And, when Iris eventually reaches an epiphany about how toxic her relationship with ex-boyfriend Jasper is, it is a moment of self-victory that Winslet plays perfectly.
Whenever the picture switches back to Amanda's romantic adventures with Graham, the film loses steam. These two characters talk and talk and talk, evaluating their every move to the point where you wish they would shut up and the action would return to Iris. As Graham, Jude Law (2006's "All the King's Men
") gets a part that is softer and gentler than he is used to. There is nothing wrong with his performance, but his character is dull. Jack Black (2006's "Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny
") is a charmer as Miles, reeling back his usual out-there energy while still retaining his charisma. Nevertheless, Black had more to work with as a romantic lead in 2001's "Shallow Hal
;" here he is stuck playing second fiddle. In a memorable supporting turn, Eli Wallach (2000's "Keeping the Faith
") is poignant and filled with vigor as Arthur Abbott, a once-famous film writer whose reclusive life is given a second chance when Iris inspires him just as he needs it most.
As a romantic comedy, "The Holiday" is by-the-numbers in treatment and not as whimsical as it wants to be. Better is the Hollywood insider material, which is original and often hilarious. From discussions about what a "Meet-Cute" is, to the importance of a film release's opening weekend box-office numbers, to an imaginative scene where Miles takes Iris around a video store and hums the scores from each movie he picks up, to Amanda's tendency to turn her own life at any given moment into a trailer complete with narrator and music cues, it is clear that writer-director Nancy Meyers knows a thing or two about behind-the-scenes Hollywood. What Meyers isn't quite so well-versed in is the need for energy and spontaneity when making a love story. Many of the plot points are taken directly from her superior last effort, "Something's Gotta Give
," and what was fresh there is now starting to show signs of age as she repeats herself. "The Holiday" is set up as a thinking-person's romance. The problem is that there's precious little to think about as the hours tick by.