From its wink-wink, nudge-nudge movie-within-a-movie opening through to its bold-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 pabulum that fills the multiplexes these days. And it is different; it's a special kind of pabulum -- pabulum 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 that 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 clichs, 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 Meyers's debut feature as a writer/producer -- 1980's 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 ad man 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 they're overly self-conscious, that they're hung up on penis envy and that, basically, 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, be it the womanizing Jack Nicholson or the young-enough-to-be-her-son Keanu Reeves.
Now, in The Holiday, Meyers gives us two younger women who swear off men, sit around blaming themselves for their 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 okay, because, well, Iris and Miles are clearly made for each other.
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Though Meyers tips her hat to filmmakers of the 1940s, the mix of bawdy sex comedy and meaningful relationship picture to which she aspires was still alive in Hollywood as recently as the 1970s, and as The 40 Year-Old Virgin confidently proved last year, such things remain possible even today. But the sad truth of The Holiday is that, for much of the time it's up there on the screen, it is smarter and savvier than the Hollywood norm, by which I mean pretty much anything starring some combination of Sandra Bullock, Hugh Grant, 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. But make no mistake: If you really love the smart, golden-age-of-Hollywood romantic comedies as much as Meyers claims that she does -- the ones with the "powerhouse" (to borrow Meyers's own word) women and the crackling wit -- you'll probably want some Holiday after The Holiday.