Monday, December 18, 2006

The Holiday

THE HOLIDAY (Nancy Meyers, 2006)

In THE HOLIDAY two lovelorn women on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean swap homes to escape heartbreak for Christmas. Iris (Kate Winslet) is determined to erase the last traces of her lingering affection for Jasper (Rufus Sewell), a former boyfriend and currently engaged co-worker who's been leading her on for years. Amanda (Cameron Diaz) wants to forget her fresh break-up with Ethan (Edward Burns).

Eager to leave Los Angeles, Amanda comes upon a home exchange website with a listing for Iris' cottage in Surrey. The women chat online, confirm for one another that there are absolutely no men where each hopes to travel, and agree to trade places.

Iris can't believe the enormous pad Amanda inhabits, but the sun and space is just what she needs to stop thinking about England and the man who has broken her heart many times. Amanda wasn't expecting something so small and off the beaten path, but at least the location should minimize the chance of running into any guys.

Just when they're ready to stop looking, fate intervenes and delivers men who may be perfect for both women. Iris' brother Graham (Jude Law) doesn't know that his sister is away and drops by her home one night to crash after some barhopping. Amanda is attracted to him immediately. She and Graham vow to enjoy their brief time together and leave it at that, but it quickly becomes apparent that Amanda is falling for him.

Meanwhile, Iris has two men enter her life. She befriends Arthur (Eli Wallach), Amanda's elderly screenwriter neighbor, and develops feelings for Miles (Jack Black), a film score composer who works out of Amanda's house. Once again, Iris looks to be setting herself up for disappointment as Miles is dating an actress.

THE HOLIDAY doesn't reinvent the romantic comedy, but writer-director Nancy Meyers understands two of the keys to making a successful film in the genre. First, the romantic comedy can be predictable, but it shouldn't be contrived. The love affair's escalation and destination is rarely within doubt. That's OK. Ultimately the appeal of these films is wanting and knowing that everything will turn out okay for the couple. Just don't make it seem like we're marking time until the happy ending. Whatever you do, don't have someone running to the airport to catch the other person before he or she leaves forever. You can be predictable and creative.

Second, and more importantly, we need to fall in love with the characters. It helps a lot if they are relatable rather than stock figures. Plus, how can we believe two people should be together if we don't like one or both? This doesn't rule out fights or misunderstandings between the romantic leads, but don't insult us. Put a credible obstacle between the lovers, not the tired device of a cataclysmic misunderstanding that could be cleared up in a second but ends up driving the entire second act because the characters never talk.

In a sense, Meyers' film succeeds because it doesn't make missteps. Only someone watching a romantic comedy for the first time would not be able to foresee where things are leading, but THE HOLIDAY works its magic because Meyers invests time in the characters instead of the scenarios. Iris' friendship with Arthur is a real surprise because it precedes (and possibly supercedes) any romantic involvement she has with Miles. Winslet shows us the good soul inside Iris and makes her someone to root for before she's met a man who might win her heart. Diaz's performance is inconsistent--she's too flighty and cutesy--yet we get to know her enough to see her decency underneath the immature surface.

The men of THE HOLIDAY fare well also. Law is suave and lovable, but there's more than meets the eye with Graham. Meyers wisely lets us make assumptions about him, just as we do in assessing people in an instant in real life, and then reveals his depth. Law is a classic romantic lead, but he really sparkles in his scenes with children. In a nice turn, Black tones down his shtick. There's nothing "real" about THE HOLIDAY, but the friendship and more that grows between Miles and Iris feels more organic than the love at first sight that romantic comedies often peddle.

THE HOLIDAY is a blissful reprieve from the depressing, portentous films that dominate this awards-conscious part of the movie season. A little love and warmth is always appreciated, especially when it comes in as delightful a package as this film does.

Grade: B

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