Nancy Meyers is at it again, following up the overlong chick-flick trifles “What Women Want” and “Something’s Gotta Give” with this dopey, dewy-eyed lark on the romantic joys of house-swapping. You might call “The Holiday” a modern feminist riff on Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” if doing so weren’t an insult to the world’s greatest composer; there’s more honesty in a single bar of that opera than there is in the whole of this movie, a picture so completely synthetic that there isn’t a moment or line of dialogue that has the remotest connection to reality–and not much to humor, either.
The premise is one of those ultra-cute ones so sweet that it puts your teeth on edge. Two women at opposite ends of the globe have relationships that have soured. In California, ditsy movie-trailer editor Amanda (Cameron Diaz) has caught her live-in boyfriend Ethan (Edward Burns) with another woman and tosses him out. In a village outside of London, mousy Iris (Kate Winslet) weeps over the fact that Jasper (Rufus Sewell), the arrogant colleague at a newspaper whom she’s been involved with for years, has just gotten engaged to somebody else. Deciding she needs a vacation, Amanda trolls the net and finds that Iris has put her cozy cottage up as a possibility for a two-week house swap; and after an extremely cute exchange of e-mails, the two are flying to each other’s home.
Their reactions upon arrival are very different, with Iris overwhelmed by Amanda’s palatial pad and Amanda feeling constrained by the isolation. But the latter changes her mind when she meets Iris’ handsome brother Graham (Jude Law), a book editor. Meanwhile Iris hits it off with Miles (Jack Black), a film composer who stops by the house to pick up some of Ethan’s things. Though there are complications in each case–Graham turns out to be carrying some family baggage, Amanda can’t commit, Iris is still attached to the idea of Jasper, and Miles already has a girlfriend–there’s never a moment’s doubt as to how everything is going to turn out.
Of course most romantic comedies are thoroughly predictable, so that needn’t be held against Meyers’. The problem with “The Holiday” isn’t that it’s pure formula hokum squared, but that it’s incredibly verbose without being in the least witty or charming–definitely not an example of doubling your fun. It has entirely too many fish-out-of-water sequences for the two females, as well as a plethora of ultra-dumb moments of one or the other of them jumping about in frustration or joy. And it’s completely shameless in playing a heavily manipulative hand. It employs not only two adorable, wide-eyed moppets (Miffy Engelfield and Emma Pritchard, sure to draw a chorus of oohs and aahs from its target demographic) but a scene-stealing dog and a lovable old man (Eli Wallach, playing a famous old-time Hollywood screenwriter who introduces Iris to the Hollywood classics of the thirties and forties). And that still doesn’t include the wink-wink phony movie trailers that periodically pop into Amanda’s mind as commentaries on her life. With all these elements crammed into the screenplay, it’s no wonder that the picture clocks in at an unconscionable 135 minutes. Whatever were Meyers and editor Joe Hutshing thinking?
As to the cast, the rule of thumb is that the women overplay mercilessly and the guys opt for restraint. On the distaff side, aside from her jumping up-and-down moments the winsome Winslet comes off better than Diaz, whose blonde bombshell shtick seems forced and shrill by comparison. The men play distinctly second-fiddle, with Law compelled to act gaga over Diaz overmuch and Black dampening down his usual manic persona in favor of a weird smile that’s meant to be endearing but comes across as vaguely creepy.
“The Holiday” makes full use of its locations on both continents to create a sort of modern storybook feel, and on the crafts side it’s solidly made, with Dean Cundey’s cinematography enhancing John Hutman’s production design and Dan Webster’s art direction. But one does have to wonder about the on-again, off-again winter of the English scenes, which sometimes feature deep snow and at others green fields. The weather may be variable, but this is ridiculous. Hans Zimmer’s score is typically bouncy, hardly worthy of the major mention that Miles gives him in an embarrassing scene with Iris in a DVD-rental store (though it does feature a brief cameo that works).
But ultimately “The Holiday” rests on Meyers’ shoulders, and it’s her uninspired writing and direction that make it a far from festive experience. A pity that brilliant screenwriter Wallach plays wasn’t really around to add a bit of old-pro magic to her work. At the very least he could have trimmed the script down to the ninety-minute mark.