From its wink-wink, nudge-nudge movie-within-a-movie opening through to its boldfaced quoting of such classic Hollywood farces as The Lady Eve and His Girl Friday, Nancy Meyers’ The Holiday wants us to know that it’s different from the kind of rom-com pablum that proliferates at the multiplexes these days, especially during the Christmas season. And it is different; it’s a special kind of pablum — pablum for the cognoscenti. Like Meyers’ last two chick-flick hits, What Women Want and Something’s Gotta Give, this is a high-gloss romp about beautiful, obscenely successful people who are less lucky in love than they are in their careers, but who believe they can — nay, deserve to — have it all and, before the picture’s over, end up getting it. And because Meyers keeps elbowing the audience in the ribs as if to say, “I know it looks like I’m recycling a bunch of hoary old clichés, but I’m really poking fun at them,” a lot of viewers will leave with the impression that they’ve just seen something smart and sophisticated. Like her near namesake, Meyers has quite a way with b-o-l-o-g-n-a.
Set between Los Angeles and London during the last weeks of the calendar year, The Holiday is about two women who share a need for a change of scenery. Here in the Southland, movie-trailer producer Amanda (Cameron Diaz) has just kicked her no-good, cheating boyfriend (Edward Burns) to the curb. Across the pond, Daily Telegraph wedding reporter Iris (Kate Winslet) has discovered, in the most embarrassingly impersonal of ways, that her own unfaithful ex (Rufus Sewell), whom she still not-so-secretly pines for, is getting hitched to another woman. Lo and behold, these two inconsolable lonely-hearts stumble upon one another in an Internet chat room, bond over their mutual hatred for the male species and promptly negotiate a house swap — Amanda’s epic Brentwood mansion for Iris’ quaint gingerbread cottage (which, I feel compelled to note, no print journalist I know of could ever afford, even if it is in Surrey).
Meyers, whose films (some made on her own and some in partnership with ex-husband Charles Shyer) have collectively grossed more than $1 billion at the worldwide box office, is probably the most quantifiably successful woman filmmaker in Hollywood at the moment, and beyond her impressive ticket sales, she’s garnered a reputation for crafting the kind of empowering female characters that women are always complaining there aren’t enough of at the movies. But with the notable exception of Meyers’ debut feature as writer-producer — 1980s spunky, Jewish-American-Princess-in-the-Army comedy Private Benjamin — her films strike me as retrograde toward the fairer sex in ways that would get a male director strung up by his toes. In What Women Want, for example, when Mel Gibson’s cock-of-the-walk ad man becomes gifted with the ability to hear women’s innermost thoughts, the things he hears only reinforce every stereotype that preening chauvinists already have about women — that they’re overly self-conscious of their appearance, that they’re hung up on penis envy and that, basically, there’s nothing wrong with them that a little sweet talk and a roll in the hay won’t cure. Then, in Something’s Gotta Give, Meyers offers up Diane Keaton as the supposed epitome of independent-minded modern womanhood, only to reveal her as a man-hungry pushover ready to fall into the arms of anyone who still finds her attractive in middle age, be it the womanizing Jack Nicholson or the young-enough-to-be-her-son Keanu Reeves.
Now, in The Holiday, Meyers gives us two younger women who swear off men, sit around blaming themselves for their romantic failings and, at the earliest opportunity, dive headfirst back into the relationship cesspool. When Iris’ studly brother Graham (the ubiquitous Jude Law) shows up unannounced (and drunk) on Amanda’s doorstep not 24 hours after her arrival in London, she beds down with him faster than the characters in one of those porno movies where the “doctor” makes an unexpected “house call.” Meanwhile, Iris wastes little time in striking up more than a friendship with self-effacing film composer Miles (Jack Black), no matter that he’s already in a relationship with a smokin’-hot actress (Shannyn Sossamon). Somehow, for all of Meyers’ exalting of fidelity early in the film, this is supposed to be okay, because, well, Iris and Miles are clearly made for each other and, besides, Sossamon is way out of Black’s league. (But when she turns out to be cheating on him too, the movie treats it as an unconscionable betrayal!)
All of The Holiday’s most graceful moments belong to 91-year-old Eli Wallach as Amanda’s L.A. neighbor, an Oscar-winning screenwriting legend who befriends Iris and tells her she should stop being the wallflowery best friend in the movie of her own life and start acting the part of a leading lady, someone on the order of Irene Dunne. Would that she listened sooner: By the time The Holiday entered its final stretch, with Iris still wondering if she might patch things up with her deadbeat ex, I was wishing I could perform a house swap on this whole movie and settle down in the comfy environs of The Philadelphia Story instead. For a supposedly strong female character, Iris has less backbone than some species of earthworm — she only values herself as much as the men in her life (and the wrong ones at that) value her. Not that Amanda fares much better: She spends most of the movie wondering, but never daring to ask, who the two mysterious femmes are that keep texting Graham on his cell phone. And then, when Meyers finally gives up that ghost, there’s something nearly grotesque about the revelation. If this is female empowerment, I’d hate to see what oppression looks like.
Though Meyers tips her hat to filmmakers of the 1940s, the mix of bawdy sex comedy and meaningful relationship picture to which she aspires was still alive and well in Hollywood as recently as the 1970s, in the work of Paul Mazursky, Blake Edwards and Elaine May to name just three. And as The 40 Year-Old Virgin confidently proved last year, such things remain possible even today. But the sad truth of The Holiday is that, for much of the time it’s up there on the screen, it is smarter and savvier than the Hollywood norm, by which I mean pretty much anything starring some combination of Sandra Bullock, Hugh Grant, Kate Hudson and one of the Wilson brothers. Meyers can write a good zinger, and she has a knack for casting actors who not only look good in bed, but are talented enough to rise above the material and, in some cases, nearly transform it. That was true of Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give and it’s true of nearly everyone here save Diaz, who has her perkiness knob turned up so high that you keep hoping someone will give her a Valium. They’re the sort of performers who take so much pleasure in performing that you can get caught up in their merriment and momentarily forget how off-putting the movie’s whole sensibility is. But make no mistake: We’re a long way here from Ben Hecht and Preston Sturges and Kaufman & Hart. If you really love the smart golden-age-of-Hollywood romantic comedies as much as Meyers claims that she does — the ones with the “powerhouse” (to borrow Meyers’ own word) women and the crackling wit — you may end up pining for a Holiday from The Holiday.
THE HOLIDAY | Written and directed by NANCY MEYERS | Produced by MEYERS and BRUCE A. BLOCK | Released by Columbia Pictures | Citywide