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The Holiday Review

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by Chris McEneany Apr 6, 2007 at 12:00 AM

    The Holiday Review
    Two couples on opposite sides of the Pond are suffering difficulties in their mutual relationships, and with the Christmas festivities fast approaching things look set for an acutely painful and lonely holiday period - unless the ladies involved take some drastic action.

    Glamour-gal Amanda (Cameron Diaz), a Hollywood mover and shaker and editor of movie trailers, has dumped her two-timing boyfriend (the forever-non-descript Edward Burns) and decided that she needs a vacation to clear her mind. A change is as good as a rest, as they say. Meanwhile, over in the much more subdued and quaint enclave of a tiny hamlet in Surrey, Kate Winslet's newspaper journalist Iris has just been publicly and humiliatingly dumped, herself, by office cad Jasper, played by Rufus Sewell (who, even in a rom-com, is still a baddie) and is all-too eager to escape the angst and the heartache and see the world with fresher eyes. Having met via a House Swap website on the net, the two women arrange to exchange homes for a couple of weeks over the Holiday period, each then being able to sample something they have never tried before and, in the tried and trusted Hollywood nature of such things, go on to discover their true inner selves and, of course, new romances in the unlikeliest of places.

    The mousy Iris comes to the pumping city of glitz that is LA, Amanda's hometown, and finds, besides stacks of DVDs, a whopping HDTV, electrically controlled blinds and a swimming pool, a kindly and kindred spirit in elderly neighbour Arthur Abbot, played by one of the all-time greats, Eli Wallach. In perhaps the most inspired portion of the film, Iris discovers that he is actually a legendary screenwriter and, as things progress, Arthur manages to steer Winslet's star-struck fish-out-of-water through the pitfalls of life and love. But, of course, things aren't quite as simple as that. For a start, we have Jack Black's movie composer Miles who arrives on the scene and, equally agog at the presence of Wallach's grandmaster, comes to shed some of his restraint to reveal that he has relationship problems of his own. That he and Iris will eventually fall in love is hardly a surprise, but the way in which this standardised formula is handled is crucial to the film's success. Luckily, director Nancy Meyers has a knack for these things and the LA-set half of the story is certainly the most rewarding, with pathos and poignancy successfully intermingled with the usual smattering of comic-cum-hand-wringing situations that the characters find themselves in, and the pre-ordained trajectory of the couples' emotions still feels engrossing enough to have us care what happens to them.

    Where Meyers allows her film to unravel is in the English half of the tale. Diaz's Amanda has no sooner settled down in the picture-postcard setting of Iris's beatific cottage than there is a knock at the door and Iris's drunken brother Graham (just listen to how Diaz pronounces his name!), played by the stultifyingly dull Jude Law, enters her life. Taking up what certainly seems like the lion's share of the film, this English saga is mind-numbingly awful, folks. Diaz, always watchable and completely confident with her performances, is actually the root cause of the film's problems. She is a celebrity superstar who never, ever lets you forget that she is simply “playing” a role, rather than actually inhabiting it as a real actress would do. And, as such, there is absolutely no chance that we can invest in her plight whatsoever. Hearing her ongoing personal dilemmas as a narrative from the Hollywood Voiceover Man may have seemed like a clever idea at the first draft stage, but it just doesn't cut it when saddled with her eye-rolling, lip-pouting reactions, I'm afraid. The dialogue that she and Law spout from the outset bristles with cloying contrivance and the whole situation that these two enact as their love blossoms rankles with cheap development and a truly appalling niceness that I found particularly difficult to stomach at times. In fact, I could barely resist the temptation to skip past their scenes altogether and just cut to the more engaging and far better written LA sections of the film which, although still clichéd, provide the necessary heart and soul that the film so longs to supply.

    From the erstwhile helmer of What Women Want and Something's Gotta Give, The Holiday wraps up enough sugar and schmaltz to keep the girls and the easily-pleased happy and fur-up the teeth of anybody else who stumbles into it. Not that The Holiday is entirely a bad film, you understand. Far from it, in fact. But this is the type of deal in which you know exactly what you're going to get right from the word go. Alongside bargain-bin action fodder from the likes of Steven Seagal and teen slasher-pics (and, these days, even these are usually remakes), the romantic comedy is possibly the easiest genre product to produce. Despite the myriad combinations of characters, set-ups and contrivances, the ending is always blatantly obvious pretty much from the outset - love is found, albeit from the where the script maintains is the least likely of places, and the delicate balance of harmony is restored, the t's are crossed and the i's are dotted and we all believe, if only fleetingly, that simple, life-affirming romance is entirely possible. Now, with this ever-popular and decidedly unchallenging format, the signposted denouement and stock-in-trade roster of protagonists are things that are nigh on essential. God forbid we have an easygoing chick-flick that actually attempts to break with tradition and try something new. But, although The Holiday is no disaster, and is even quite enjoyable on its own merits (even for a decided non-fan of the genre like me), there is an undeniable staleness to the whole affair that fails to inspire or even to stick in the mind much beyond the end credits. With a script that panders to the tissue-dabbing sorority amongst us, it is left to the rather unusual addition of Eli Wallach's worldly-wise icon of Hollywood's Golden Age to lend the film some gravitas. Certainly, it is his little story - merely a cog within the wheel, as it were - that provides the most interest, packed, as it is, with movie references and digs at the way in which Tinseltown now operates. His companionship with Iris is touching and sincere, and the manner in which she, in return for the philosophical mentoring he has proffered (with the help of some classic movies that he recommends she watch), helps him to reach the final station in his life and career is intelligently thought out and genuinely heart-warming.

    Some of the cast do well enough within the limited spectrum of their roles, with Winslet coming out on top, but there is inevitable disappointment to found in seeing Jack Black slumming it with a much cosier part than really suits him, his big face not exactly the best at conveying the dilemmas of life and love. Law has never ignited the screen as far as I'm concerned - his continued popularity still eludes me, in fact - and, here, he has no need to even try. Graham suits his style of blandness to a tee and, in that respect, this is perfect casting. With his trademarked mannerisms and simpering voice, he becomes an emotional black hole into which Diaz cannot help but be drawn. Their interplay is retch-inducing, so un-palatable is the verbal sparring that they playfully undertake. Every minute shared with the couple is a tedious study of banal sentiment-sharing, their feelings struggling to balance comedy with melodrama, and resulting in nothing more affecting than drip-feed slush. Law's line delivery is so preening and self-aware - as always - that I find it utterly bewildering that he is held in such high regard. Yes, he was good in The Road To Perdition, but I simply cannot think of anything else that he has made that I could sit through. Saving the day is Wallach, who asserts himself with style and a sense of wit. I still find it hard to extricate Wallach, the actor, from his magnificent performance as Tucco in Leone's awesome The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, but as the principled and charismatic Arthur Abbot he injects so much personality that his grizzled and pinched rodent-like features seem to smooth over and his eyes glitter not with the love of gold but with the fuzzy nostalgia of yesteryear and the simple knowledge that his words and thoughts still have much relevance to the kids of today.

    But the contrived and heavily foretold-in-advance plot twists that Meyers brings to play ensure that the film never really finds a steady or consistent pace. The two plot strands don't quite add up as a complete whole, with Winslet's and Black's far outweighing the crass obviousness of the half belonging to Diaz and Law, which can, obviously, make for a rather uneven feel. Personally, I tired very quickly of the England-based segment which, although it manages to stay just the right side of the typical American rose-goggled view of Blighty, steers a very clichéd and unconvincing path through the territorial waters of the nation known as Stereotypia. Winslet, who is another performer that I could never normally take to, provides the best value by far and this should come as no surprise considering the concerted efforts that she has made to bolster her career in films as diverse as Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and the recent Little Children. Indeed there is a marvellous moment when she delivers a heartbreaking speech that, had it not been for Winslet's total investment in her character, would have been howlingly cringe-worthy. As it stands, the scene is capped off with a terrific zinger from Jack Black that actually had me laughing out loud and, really, I suppose it is in such little instances when it manages to catch you off-guard that The Holiday works best. Another great scene has Miles humming the theme tunes to movies as he grabs their DVD boxes from the shelves of a video library - cue a nice little reference to film score electronica when he brandishes the case for Chariots Of Fire, which must surely have raised one of Hans Zimmer's eyebrows (he scored this film). There is also a nice, but rather strange cameo appearance in this scene from a certain star of The Graduate who is, himself, still enjoying a continually rich and diverse career.

    So, to sum it up then, The Holiday runs the typical course of the genre - heartbreak, laughs and revelations - with the soul-searching underlined with a final obligatory burst of running accompanied by an emotional surge of romantic music. And, please be warned, the actual climax features one of the most embarrassing and trite get-togethers that you may have seen in a long, long time. Personally, I only liked half of the movie but, being slightly more lenient than many others, I will still award it a 6 out of 10. Fans of the genre can feel free to add a point to that score, though. Winslet, Black and Wallach work fine. Diaz and Law are nothing short of wretched.