Hostess Sno-ball of a confection that it is, who'd have thunk The Holiday would be a movie to provoke such violent reactions?
Some critics have practically pissed in their knickers reviling it, and a friend of mine who actually worked on the thing speaks of it as the Antichrist. Meanwhile, there's a core audience, evidenced by website e-mails and what will be, I predict, a healthy opening weekend, that wants nothing more than to get lost in its warm-and-comfy (however synthetic) charms.
For me, eviscerating The Holiday would be like turning a Howitzer upon a velveteen rabbit, or using an ArtForum critic's artillery to shell one of those big-eyed Keane paintings. It's such a seemingly innocuous piece of treacle that such an attack seems a bit absurd, like barging into a bric-and-brac bath and soap emporium to rail at the owner for not carrying sex toys.
The problem is, the movie's not quite as mindless and superficial as it seems, and its premise actually suggests the template for a decent romantic comedy, so for people who may have wanted to like the pic and don't, there's more than a frisson of betrayed expectations in their disappointment. And for people who were never going to like a Nancy Meyers movie to begin with, there's a sense that something about it -- in spite of their every efforts to deride and dismiss the film -- got under their skin.
That "something" is what intrigues me. I think that what drives some people nuts about a movie like this is that it's just intelligent enough to suggest that it ought to know better than to do what it does... and that despite their own intelligence, these appalled viewers do get sucked into the movie's narcotic fantasy sensibility here and there.
...For example: talking about The Holiday with my breakfast date this morning, a woman who is nothing if not politically correct, I observed an interesting phenomenon. I complained that the movie's ethos was annoyingly conservative-traditional (in this story there's no such thing as a woman without a man, or the idea of anybody being happy on their own) and she was offended and on board; I noted how (like too many mainstream rom-coms) it operates in an unreal vacuum when it comes to matters of money and livelihood, and she was in rabid accord.
Then I noted that after a scene where the Kate Winslet character befriends a lovable old man (Eli Wallach), and there was a scene where the Cameron Diaz character made funny faces at a dog (who of course responded adorably), I thus found myself waiting for the inevitable appearance of a baby... and was soon rewarded by the on-screen arrival of not one, but two darling little British pre-schooler daughters.
My date was done nodding sympathetically and was instead contemplating her own pooch, a terrier leashed by our table. "But I love making faces at Thomas," she said. "He's got such a wonderful face. He'd be great in a movie! Wouldn't you, Thomas?"
And there you have it. Mow down writer-director Meyers and all she stands for, but would you shoot the dog?
Here's where I stand on Nancy Meyers and her oeuvre (which includes, lest we let him off the hook, all the shlocky movies she made with former hub Charles Shyer): I'm a fan of Something's Gotta Give, which is largely a good and brave romantic comedy (though it's not exactly courageous to make a love story about over-50s when they happen to be Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson), but I basically perceive her movies to be Bourgie Porn.
If you've seen the trailer, you know the concept: a pair of lovelorn ladies on different continents trade homes for a holiday getaway from men... and meet men nonetheless. But despite the celeb casting, there are really only two stars in The Holiday. One is British:
Perhaps the most embarrassing sequence in Holiday is that of Winslet's arrival at Diaz's palatial Hollywood abode, as she goes racing from cavernous House Beautiful room to room, virtually orgasming over the fixtures (that gargantuan stove! the gigantic wall screen!). It's the Meyers equivalent of a porno money shot, the fulfillment of her ultimate fantasy -- a rapturous wallow in the riches of conspicuous consumption.
While who among us hasn't had some version of an "if I was a millionaire" fantasy, what riles one about the Meyers ethic is that it's so shameless and tasteless in its ga-ga embrace of all that money can buy, and the conservative values that go with it... while it pretends to be telling us stories about People Like Us.
The people in The Holiday are glossy stock characters at best, and after spending half of an inordinately flabby two hours-plus in their company, I found myself yearning for... I dunno, acne -- a hangnail, anything that might betray the presence of actual flesh and blood. I noticed that the biggest laugh-out-louds earned by the movie came from simulations of such moments: a burp, someone uttering a "fuck," Diaz swigging wine straight from a bottle -- in other words, instances when we were reminded of behavior as exhibited by real-life human beings.
One of the biggest laughs came from one darling daughter's reaction to meeting Diaz: "You look like my Barbie." The actress gracefully takes this in stride, not given much choice by such a nudge-wink moment in a script rife with same (Meyers pal Dustin Hoffman gets an utterly meaningless cameo for another similarly reflexive moment). Again, such bits would go down easier if the story accepted its own unreality, instead of calculating contrivances to remind us that It's Only a Movie.
But what the Meyers aesthetic actually represents is "Only in the Movies" -- only in movies of a certain sort. In the Golden Age, plenty of films were set in swank and high-flown worlds that had little to do with grim reality. But the best screwball comedies taking on such milieus were willing to wreak havoc with class -- bringing down the highbrows with low humor. The Holiday is so cocooned (the movie finds its most restful, sincere scene when Diaz and Law lie down with his daughters in a Vogue spread-like play-tent the kids've supposedly constructed) that it seems to exist in a 24/7 all-Beverly Hills world.
When movie trailer editor Diaz whined about how she always bought the books she meant to (i.e. felt she was supposed to) read, but never did, it occurred to me that Meyers' references to Old Hollywood and sops to "real issues" were evidences of the cinematic equivalent: Meyers may be a moviemaker with a pile of movies on her shelf that she'd like to think she'll make (or should make) someday, and never will.
What she does instead is make romantic comedies that are essentially soft in the head. The Holiday is a movie which, while making occasional hypocritical sops to contemporary realities, is passionately dedicated to excluding reality from the screen. Its characters and conflicts are cotton-candy ephemeral. Is there really any question about Diaz ending up with Jude Law, the sexy but saintly-sweet widower with the aforementioned daughters, who's such a perfect man that he freely admits to being a weeper? Do we ever doubt that Winslet and charming Jack Black will get over their bad, bad Bellamy exes and begin to live a life of over-the-top luxury together?
Nuh-uh, and come to think of it, it's the opening shot of The Holiday that gave me that "we are doomed" feeling: Jack Black, cast as a successful film composer, sits scoring a Hallmark card-like romantic scene, looking all earnest and soulful... and I'm thinking: Jack Black?! Taken over by a body-snatcher? I'm happy for the guy, who's proving his romantic leading man cred with this role, but still -- the Black I know and love would sing some Tenacious-ly wicked parody of this picture. But no, defanged and neutered, he's imprisoned inside this snow-globe of a Kodak ad feature, while that music -- which often sounds like a stock synth track from a Love Boat episode, keeps burbling under another scene that seems shot through a codeine scrim of unreality.
Finally, the movie got me thinking about how there are two kinds of romantic comedies: those like this one that are wholly escapist fantasies, period, and those (Eternal Sunshine comes to mind) which take on aspects of the romantic life as we mortals live it. I'm not such a total curmudgeon that I didn't enjoy moments of The Holiday (I can watch Kate Winslet in anything, and that is a cute dog), but I'm most a fan of the rom-coms that mix it up: give me the fantasy, but give me... me, please -- at least people and problems I can relate to. That really shouldn't be too much to ask for.