There are, sadly, still so few women directors consistently turning out feature films that Nancy Meyers is considered an auteur. Meyers, who made her name in the 1980s as the screenwriter for comedy hits Private Benjamin and Baby Boom, has, in this decade, moved behind the camera for a series of indistinct, pandering, but still successful romantic comedies, starting with the high-concept Mel Gibson vehicle What Women Want (2000) and continuing with the Jack Nicholson/Diane Keaton-pairing Something's Gotta Give (2003). That The Holiday is the best of the bunch just shows you what happens when you resist the urge to cast the egomaniacal likes of Gibson and Nicholson as rom-com leading men.
The Holiday, which Meyers also scripted, is based on a solid genre premise: London journalist Iris (Kate Winslet), a sad-sack Bridget Jones, and Los Angeles film-trailer director Amanda (Cameron Diaz), a sunny California girl, are both dealing with bad breakups and want to get out of town for the holidays. They find each other on a house-swap Web site and decide to switch cities for a couple of weeks. In England, Amanda meets and falls for Iris' foxy brother Graham (Jude Law). In California, Iris strikes up a promising friendship with film composer Miles (Jack Black).
But, despite a fruitful set-up, flaws are abundant, starting with some class-bound real-estate porn familiar from Meyers' previous films. Meyers incorporates lots of rhyming across her parallel storylines, and much of it works: Amanda is incapable of crying; Iris can't stop. One particularly witty visual motif is the same stack of untouched book-club faves (The Corrections, The Kite Runner) languishing on a nightstand in each house. But Meyers falls flat in having each heroine totally rock out, dude, to predictable but out-of-character modern-rock hits that happen to come on the radio. Diaz has made similar moments of silly comic abandon work before (charming us by dancing in her Underoos in the otherwise worthless Charlie's Angels, for instance), but she just looks silly squealing like a schoolgirl at the sound of the Killers' "Mr. Brightside." And when Winslet is forced to play one-woman-air-band to Jet's "Are You Gonna Be My Girl," you just feel sorry for her.
A recurring bit where a booming film-trailer voice-over analyzes Amanda's life almost sinks the movie, but The Holiday ends up working despite these hurdles. Diaz struggles early, but for the most part the leads acquit themselves well, particularly the Brits. And Law, surprisingly, steals the movie with juicy line readings.
Jack Black doesn't get a whole lot of screen time. Iris' real companion for much of her trip is a retired, Oscar-winning screenwriter who gives her a list of classic romantic comedies to see, which has Iris raving about Irene Dunne and The Lady Eve and watching His Girl Friday with Miles.
Meyers gets points for acknowledging the greats, and if the references lead even one unknowing viewer to the video store, it's worth it. But this bit also comes off as more than a little self-congratulatory. Citing the classics doesn't put you in their company, and while Meyers' movie is okay, it sure ain't The Awful Truth.
Opening Friday, December 8th