I almost swerved into a palm tree last week when I saw the billboard. No, it wasn’t an ad for one of those jeans companies, with sexually indeterminate models showing off their rear ends, or for some liqueur, with suggestive figures in various degrees of undress.
Rather, it was a billboard featuring four actors and a Christmas scene. There was a man and a woman on each side, smiling at each other: No cleavage, no leering, just smiling. Cameron Diaz and Jude Law on one side, Kate Winslet and Jack Black (yes, Jack Black) on the other.
The movie advertised was “The Holiday,” which hasn’t enjoyed a lot of hype and, given its lack of pretension or cutting-edge ambition, probably has few Oscar hopes.
It’s a film belonging to what is now a very narrow niche: the romantic comedy.
The tradition goes back to “The Philadelphia Story,” “Ninotchka” and “It Happened One Night” and, more recently, pics like “Pretty Woman” and “You’ve Got Mail.” All these films made money, and they all appear on a lot of people’s lists of favorite movies. The latter two play endlessly on TV.
But nowadays, it seems, few screenwriters want to write anything that frothy or healthily heterosexual. The aspirations of writers currently tend toward the likes of “Brokeback Mountain,” “Transamerica” and “Closer.” Everything apparently needs a provocative twist to be considered cool.
By contrast, the Hollywood majors really don’t relish such difficult drama projects: Aside from their f/x-laden tentpoles, the studio bosses would rather just make trash comedies.
In that respect, actors, especially males, have obliged in spades. Few wish to play in anything so banal as a straightforward romantic comedy: Witness the plethora of sex comedies like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” or gross-out laffers like the “American Pie” series.
Not that Nancy Meyers, the writer-director of “The Holiday,” is mining the romantic comedy genre in completely literal fashion. Her twist on the romance is modern enough: She says she was initially piqued by the idea of people switching houses, having noticed how many such vacation swaps, even trans-Atlantic ones, were being done over the Internet. From there she developed the idea, which is also a fertile one, of folks exchanging lives for a brief period of time.
And who in real life needs that more than young people whose love lives have stalled or fallen to pieces?
As for the casting, you have to admire the chutzpah of putting Black into the role of a romantic lead — Meyers’ own choice. I imagine she felt there was something appealing about the verve of this guy, a little off-kilter and ungainly though he is. (I’m not at all surprised it took a woman to key into this and recognize his teddy-bear potential.) And Law? In this role he’s perfect female wish-fulfillment: A widower with two adorable daughters, he easily tears up, and as the song says, “He’s so ambitious, he even sews!”
You might think that female studio chieftains would be the logical champions of romantic comedies, but they oddly or perversely seem to relish more their roles as the greenlighters of testosterone-driven biggies such as “Spider-Man,” “Mission: Impossible” or “Pirates of the Caribbean.” (To be fair to Sony’s Amy Pascal, who gave the nod to this latest Meyers’ project, she says she’d be “thrilled” to get more scripts in the genre — were they of equally promising quality. Apparently, they’re just not out there.)
“The Holiday” does have one other thing going for it: its release date. This may not be anything more than a serendipity, but the movie is going up against two male-skewing openers on Dec. 8., Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” and Warner Bros.’ “Blood Diamond.”
I’m not going to speak for the men, but I’m betting more women will want to watch Diaz and Law fall in love than see Mayans throwing spears.
As for “Blood Diamond,” I doubt Christmas is the best season to make women feel guilty about wearing expensive jewelry.