Like any genre, romantic comedies have a formula that makes them predictable. But there are three things that make them work when they're firing on all heart-shaped cylinders: the performances and chemistry between the stars, the ability of the writer/director to hide the formula or make it seem fresh, and their adeptness at wringing honest emotions out of the audience while avoiding sappiness or melodrama.
So how do Nancy Meyers and her stars fare? Very well, actually.
Meyers' last romantic comedy, "Something's Gotta Give," was a tale of two couples, one old, and one young. All the actors were warm and engaging, and Jack Nicholson was no slouch either. But it was Diane Keaton who elevated the film from a three-star affair to a three-and-a-half-star success. With "The Holiday," Meyers once again shows that she's got great instincts when it comes to casting. All four of her leads manage to make the most out of the script. It's like watching an understated competition for viewers' affections. Jude Law and Cameron Diaz click together, but so does Kate Winslet and anybody. Which is to say, Winslet comes out ahead in the performance department. But credit Meyers' script for varying the formula to where we first see Winslet's jilted character bounce back in a Platonic relationship with a 90 year old before nice-guy Jack Black comes into the picture.
"The Holiday" is a tale of two couples on two continents. Everybody knows that the loneliest time for singles is Christmas. But for recently dumped singles, the prospect of spending the holiday alone is too much to bear. Kate Winslet really shines as Iris, a journalist at the London Daily Telegraph who, moments after she gives an expensive Christmas present to the man she's been seeing, is surprised by a public announcement of the cur's engagement to another woman. But Cameron Diaz also seems perfect and more comfortable than we've seen her in a long time as Amanda, a Hollywood producer of film trailers who throws her long-term boyfriend out on his ear after learning about his two-timing.
Amanda impulsively decides she needs a vacation, and starts looking places up on the Internet. Before long, she and Iris are doing the "You've Got Mail" thing, agreeing to swap houses for two weeks, starting tomorrow. So glitz-girl Amanda takes her eye mask and suitcases to Iris's home in a tiny village in Surrey, England, where there are sheep roaming just outside the window and exposed beams in the rustic cottage are low enough for her to bump her head. Are we having fun yet? Iris, meanwhile, feels as if she's struck the jackpot landing in Amanda's L.A. mansion, with it's giant HD TV and walls full of DVDs, swimming pool, Jacuzzi bath, locked front gate, and gardener.
It doesn't take long for either of their lives to become complicated, which only goes to show you that you can take the person out of the problem, but you can't take the problem out of the person. Iris's "pissed" brother shows up on the doorstep expecting to spend the night so he doesn't have to get behind the wheel, and Amanda, the swimmer, takes the plunge right away into a one-night stand. He won't remember anyway, will he? Yep, he does, and half of the plot follows her developing relationship with Graham (Law). Amanda hasn't cried since her parents divorced when she was 15, and so of course we wait for a moment when she can become "whole" again. That's perhaps the most contrived element in this otherwise believable comedy, though in Meyers' defense she does play this cliché for laughs.
Across the pond, it doesn't take the ebullient Iris long to learn the names of all who pass by those locked gates, including an old man with a walker whom she finds lost one day and gives a lift home in her car (they switched cars too, you see). The man turns out to be a legendary screenwriter who has a house full of awards, including Mr. Oscar. As she becomes closer to Arthur (poignantly played by Eli Wallach), she has her own drop-in surprise: a composer named Miles (Black) who works with Amanda's ex-. Miles takes an interest in the old guy too, and soon it's a threesome, and then a moresome as we're introduced to Arthur's old friends, Ernie (Bill Macy) and Norman (Shelley Berman). It all works because we realize that as fascinated and adoring as the young people are of these old talents, so is Meyers of the actors she's cast. It's a working tribute.
There are a few surprises along the way, but mostly the pleasure comes from watching the four principles as they orbit like little lost space ships until they finally find the perfect "dock." Is it corny? Sure. But it's also enjoyable, with just enough layers to make it transcend the formula. "You're a leading lady," Arthur tells Iris, "but for some reason you're behaving like the best friend." She helps him, he helps her, Miles helps himself, and we all are the beneficiaries. There are wonderful lines sprinkled here and there for effect, and some funny moments--including a catch-you-off-guard cameo by Dustin Hoffman.
When Amanda's tears finally come, you feel manipulated a bit and can see it coming a mile away. But for the rest of the film, "The Holiday" provides an honest dose of emotion that explores why good people are attracted to bad ones and gives us a Christmas movie that doesn't wallow in holiday gloom. I enjoyed it at least as much as "Something's Gotta Give," which I liked better than "What Women Want" . . . which only goes to prove that Nancy Meyers is getting stronger as a writer-director of romantic comedies.
More surprises. The 1080p picture is among the best I've seen in a romantic comedy, with brighter (but still natural-looking) colors than we normally see and a clarity and sharpness that make it a pure delight to watch. The film is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, which stretches across the entire surface of 16x9 televisions. No bars. Unless you count that pub in Surrey.
The sound is also solid, with an English PCM 5.1 uncompressed audio delivering a mellow but vibrant bass and good bass/treble balance. Not much rear-speaker action, but what'd you expect from a romantic comedy? Alternate soundtracks are English and French Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English, English SDH (CC), French, and Spanish.
"Foreign Exchange: The Making of 'The Holiday'" is really just one of those pre-release promos disguised as a bonus feature--you know the type, where you got more plot summary than insight?
Better is Meyers' full-length commentary. For some reason, she's more comfortable having others by her side, though Meyers dominates the discussion. Joining her at times are composer Hans Zimmer, production designer Jon Hutman, and editor Joe Hutsching. There are plenty of behind-the-scenes stories, with full details on locations. If you're into movie tourism and were planning your trip to Shere, Surrey, to see the house, you should be warned that the charming old cottage was built by Meyers and her crew. Tidbits like that keep the track moving briskly along.
Don't be put off by the title. "The Holiday" isn't so much a Christmas movie as it is a classic romantic comedy. And despite the heavy-handed parallel plotting, the writing is clever enough and the performances are warm and engaging enough to make this a far better-than-average one.