By now, Nancy Meyers knows exactly what women want –gorgeous locales, even more gorgeous actors, a sentimental love story calculated to make viewers hug themselves and maybe even each other — and she doubles the formula to generally pleasing but thoroughly unsurprising effect in “The Holiday,” a lavishly overstuffed gift basket of a movie. Shrewdly positioned as an attractive mainstream option in a busy Christmas (and kudos) season, this star-laden transatlantic fantasy will prove more than a B.O. match for Meyers’ previous hits “What Women Want” and “Something’s Gotta Give,” helping Sony ring in the new year in fine form.
Packaging two fanciful romances for the price of one, “The Holiday” introduces two women from opposite sides of the pond, alike only in their mutual bad luck with men. Iris (Kate Winslet) is a sweet-natured London journalist who’s been smitten for years with her caddish co-worker Jasper (Rufus Sewell), while Amanda (Cameron Diaz) is a Los Angeles career woman whose fiercely self-made status has pushed away many a boyfriend, including her latest (Edward Burns).
Flitting between the characters so as to accentuate their differences — Winslet’s Iris is totally adorable, Diaz’s Amanda is a total pill — the pic contrives a serendipitous meeting on the Internet. After some rather unconvincing cyber-chitchat, the two women, both in desperate need of an escape, impulsively agree to swap homes for the holidays.
Some fish-out-of-water comedy ensues, as Iris basks in the luxury of Amanda’s BevHills estate while Amanda, having relocated to the snowy English countryside, has trouble driving on the left side of the street. Amanda gets a pleasant surprise, however, when Iris’ attractive, heavily intoxicated brother Graham (Jude Law) shows up on her doorstep one night and, in a rare moment of spontaneity, she seduces him. (In his sister’s bed, no less. Yuck.)
Iris isn’t nearly so eager to hit the sheets with a stranger, instead striking up a friendship with her new neighbor, veteran screenwriter Arthur Abbott (played by nonagenarian character actor Eli Wallach). The mutually encouraging dialogues between Winslet and Wallach are among the most charming in the film, with the unfortunate side effect that Iris’ real love interest, a sensitive musician named Miles (Jack Black), almost feels shoehorned into the proceedings.
Arthur’s connection to the golden age of Hollywood ushers in references to the great comedies of Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks, as well as Jacques Tati’s “Jour de fete.” (In this wink-wink context, it’s surprising that George Cukor’s superb 1938 picture “Holiday” didn’t rate a mention.) Similarly, Meyers’ entire script adopts a knowing, tongue-in-cheek attitude toward movie convention, having Amanda imagine her life as a series of faux trailers and even giving one character a speech explaining the definition of a “meet-cute.”
Meyers’ characters tend to be more thoughtful and self-aware (or at least more self-conscious) than most, and her dialogue clearly aims for tart sophistication and a certain worldly knowledge about relational mores between men and women.
But this overlong film isn’t nearly as smart as it would like to appear, and it willingly succumbs to the very rom-com cliches it pretends to subvert. Sure enough, unfaithful ex-lovers return, doubts about long-term relationships arise, and surging emotional climaxes arrive right on cue, courtesy of the twinkly, Christmassy score by Hans Zimmer (who even gets a shout-out during the film that’s too smug by half).
In a spirited cast that exudes more collective star wattage than any of Meyers’ earlier vehicles, the Brits easily outshine their Yank counterparts. Winslet weeps and moans without sacrificing her radiance or aud’s sympathy, while the marginally less teary-eyed Law effortlessly piles on the charm in a role that will have some amusing resonances for tabloid readers.
Her jaw tightly set from her opening scene, Diaz at first overplays Amanda’s Type A severity but thaws credibly and movingly in response to Law’s ministrations. Black is in likeably low-key mode (for contrast, see him in the current “Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny”), though the role, with its occasional mad flights into musical improv, feels a tad overstretched to accommodate his unique talents.
It would be revealing too much to explain the roles played by tyke thesps Miffy Englefield and Emma Pritchard, suffice it to say that they’re almost criminally adorable.
Pic is lusciously crafted at every level, from Dean Cundey’s flattering cinematography to the even more flattering selection of L.A. and U.K. locations. The sets for Amanda’s swanky manor and Iris’ cozy Cotswold cottage have been meticulously (and, it would seem, deliberately) outfitted to inspire viewer real-estate envy.