From its wink-wink, nudge- nudge movie-within-a-movie opening through to its bald-faced quoting of such classic Hollywood farces as The Lady Eve and His Girl Friday, Nancy Meyers's The Holiday wants us to know that it's different from the kind of rom-com pablum that fills the multiplexes these days. And it is different; it's a special kind of pablumpablum for the cognoscenti. Like Meyers's 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 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 the need for a change of scenery. In SoCal, movie trailer producer Amanda (Cameron Diaz), has just kicked her no-good cheating boyfriend to the curb. Across the pond, Daily Telegraph wedding reporter Iris (Kate Winslet) has discovered that her own unfaithful ex, 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's quaint gingerbread cottage.
Meyers, whose films have collectively grossed more than $1 billion worldwide, 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 empowered female characters that women are always complaining there aren't enough of in the movies. But with the notable exception of 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 adman is 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 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.
Now, in The Holiday, Meyers gives us two younger women who swear off men, sit around blaming themselves for romantic failings, and at the earliest opportunity, dive headfirst back into the relationship cesspool. When Iris's studly brother Graham (the ubiquitous Jude Law) shows up unannounced (and drunk) on Amanda's doorstep not 24 hours after her arrival, she beds down with him posthaste. 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. Somehow, despite Meyers's exaltation of fidelity early in the film, this is supposed to be OK, because, well, Iris and Miles are clearly made for each other.
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. Would that she listened. 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. If this is female empowerment, I'd hate to see what oppression looks like.
Still, the sad truth of The Holiday is that, for much of the time it's up there on the screen, it is smarter than the Hollywood norm, by which I mean pretty much anything starring some combination of 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 (save Diaz). But make no mistake: We're a long way here from Ben Hecht and Preston Sturges. If you really love the smart, golden-age-of-Hollywood romantic comedies as much as Meyers claims that she doesthe ones with the "powerhouse" (to borrow Meyers's own word) women and the crackling wityou'll probably want some Holiday after The Holiday.
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