Review: The Holiday

I respect that writer/director Nancy Meyers can churn out safe, cozy mass entertainment that racks up big box office, and seems to favor the female audience ("What Women Want," "Something's Gotta Give"). However, I'm still waiting for Meyers to make a picture that doesn't make my skin crawl and my brain turn to mush.

Englishwoman Iris (Kate Winslet) is frustrated in love, nurturing affection for an engaged man (Rufus Sewell) who loves to prey on her feelings. Searching for a getaway, she finds a Web site where she can exchange houses with another lost soul for a brief period of time. The ideal candidate is Amanda (Cameron Diaz), a high strung Los Angeles movie professional who is feeling the burn after a failed relationship. Flying to England, Amanda finds unexpected attraction in the arms of Iris' brother, Graham (Jude Law), while Iris soaks up the L.A. wonderland with help from a neighboring writer (Eli Wallach), and a film composer (Jack Black).

"The Holiday" (IMDb listing) is relaxed, mid-tempo entertainment, and I don't fault it for aiming to please as many paying customers as it can. Where I think the picture, and the whole Meyers routine for that matter, goes wrong is in the execution. What the filmmaker has here is an extremely wordy screenplay that's modeled after the light screwball comedies of yesteryear, but it has no plan of attack.

The story might seem a simple one of romance and personal inventory, but Meyers inflates it to an unwieldy size, bloating out the film to 135 minutes. I enjoyed the character detail, but when the focus isn't on furthering the personalities and their dreams, Meyers fills the blank spots with scenes that can only be described as "dorky." The audience is subjected to not one, but two moments where our female leads have to "rock out" to a song they've selected; Winslet humiliated further by having to play air guitar with a pillow in bed. Meyers also instructs these women to squeal like schoolgirls when they find success, which, for the often bracing appeal of Cameron Diaz, is not a good idea. The less squealing she does, the better.

It takes quite a while for "Holiday" to settle down, but once it finds those calm grooves, the Christmasy, red-wine mood of the film assumes control. Meyers is blessed with the casting of Kate Winslet, who energizes the film with her spunk and inherent sweetness. Winslet works an almost Harry Potteresque feat by making her character feel real in a screenplay that gobbles artifice like M&Ms. She expresses Iris' heartbreak and romantic whiffing with authenticity and survives Meyers' bizarre attempts to make an ass out of her.

Diaz, by comparison, is a total spaz. Miscast as a Hollywood icon of power, Diaz never settles down in the role, mugging her way around the film in sharply irritating ways.

The boys do what they can with their bluntly drawn roles, but Meyers has assigned these gentlemen halos right from the start, leaving any hope for character dimension thrown right out of the window. Law plays the ideal single man: wounded in love and successful, yet needy in domestic requirements. Combine that with Law's dazzling good looks, and the character might as well have "I cuddle after sex" tattooed on his forehead.

On the other hand, Black plays the likable, non-threatening tubby schmo with a "that's not a banana in my pocket" weirdness. Especially coming after the Tenacious D movie, it's bizarre to watch Black in soft-spoken, boyfriend mode. Mercifully Meyers lets the old Black out to play for a handful of scenes; only then do you register the charms that appeal to Iris.

Eventually, "Holiday" reveals itself to be a valentine to older cinema values; to the purity of screen romance. This aesthetic is embodied by legendary actor Eli Wallach, who plays an old guard screenwriter, heartsick over the way the film business is conducted today. Actually, Wallach isn't so much a character, but a ridiculous mouthpiece for Meyers' ham-fisted frustrations with modern Hollywood business practices. Why this material is plopped in the middle of a romantic comedy, only Meyers knows.

"The Holiday" is a fairytale; a healthy portion of romantic idealism to nibble on during the holiday season. If you can mentally block out the more extreme ideas for entertainment that Meyers constantly trips herself on, there's a minute glimmer of joy to be had from this frosty piece of cake. But you have to work awfully hard to find it.

Filmfodder Grade: C+