Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Holiday (Columbia, Universal, Relativity Media, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Three nights ago Charles and I were looking for a movie to watch on one of our rare evenings together, and I was hoping for something that would be appropriate for the upcoming Christmas holiday but wouldn’t be something we’d already seen a million times before. I looked through the backlog of closeout DVD’s we’ve acquired, mostly from Charles’ workplace, and one title zoomed out at me. It was The Holiday, which turned out to be a 2006 romantic comedy starring Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet as two women, one American, one British, who respond to romantic breakups by literally switching houses and essentially living each other’s existences for two months. Romantic comedies are typically not my favorite movies, but done with the right mixture of surface cynicism and underlying charm they can move me — and this one did. It was written and directed by Nancy Meyers, and for once I can reverse my frequent line about movies written and directed by the same person and say that this means Meyers has no one but herself to credit for the good quality of her film. It begins in the U.K., at the offices of the Daily Telegraph (and I must say I’m so used to seeing fictitious newspapers in 1930’s and 1940’s films it was startling to see a real one), where Iris (Kate Winslet) has what she describes as an unrequited crush on Jasper (Rufus Sewell). It turns out her crush on Jasper isn’t quite as unrequited as she tells us in her voiceover: he’s interested in her enough to be attracted sexually but doesn’t consider her romance material, even though he’s also relying on her to edit the novel he’s started writing (he’s up to the first chapter). At a party for the Daily Telegraph staff, Jasper announces his upcoming engagement to another woman, and Kate is flabbergasted.

The film then cuts to the U.S., where Amanda (Cameron Diaz) is in the process of throwing out her boyfriend — she forces him to leave wearing nothing but a T-shirt and underwear — because he’s been spending late nights ostensibly working (he’s a film composer and she’s the owner of a company that makes movie trailers — she’s shown working on one for a decidedly fictitious film called Deception, a spy thriller starring Lindsay Lohan and James Franco) but really screwing his receptionist. Amanda decides she needs to get away for a vacation, and she logs on her computer to a vacation-rentals site, first asking herself, “Where do they speak English? England!” and then looking for listings there. The one she comes across is for “Rosehill Cottage” in Surrey, but the notice on the listing is it’s only available on a “home exchange” basis — which means she and its owner will swap living spaces and lifestyles for the duration of the rental. Amanda calls Iris and the two agree to the deal. Once Amanda settles in the cottage she’s startled to see someone else coming in late at night; he turns out to be Graham (Jude Law), Iris’s brother, who has a key to the cottage so that if he’s been out too late drinking in the country pubs he can go there and sleep it off rather than risk a drunken drive home to London. Amanda asks Graham point-blank to have sex with her — the sort of women-are-from-Mars, men-are-from-Venus reversal scene seemingly beloved of women writer-directors — but though they sleep together that first night she herself is so drunk she passes out first and he won’t have sex with someone who’s unconscious (making him far more of a gentleman than quite a lot of guys in Hollywood!). Nonetheless, she and Graham hit it off together, date each other and ultimately do have sex — even though she’s shocked to find that Graham already has two kids (she asks him, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E-D?” and he tells her, “W-I-D-O-W-E-R”) and so if she gets seriously involved with him it’ll mean having an instant family.

Meanwhile, Iris befriends her next-door neighbor, Arthur Abbott (Eli Wallach), an old-time Hollywood writer who has resisted offers from the Writers’ Guild of America to throw him a gala reception because he’s become an embittered old cynic in retirement and thinks no one is interested in his work anymore. Abbott — whose name I suspect Meyers mashed up from writer Arthur Miller and writer-director George Abbott — delivers a speech lamenting the current state of Hollywood that I could have written: “I came to Hollywood over 60 years ago, and immediately fell in love with motion pictures. And it’s a love affair that’s lasted a lifetime. When I first arrived in Tinseltown, there were no cineplexes or multiplexes. No such thing as a Blockbuster or DVD. I was here before conglomerates owned the studios. Before pictures had special-effects teams. And definitely before box office results were reported like baseball scores on the nightly news.” He also becomes a volunteer film-history professor for Iris, sending her to Blockbuster Video (the presence of Blockbuster as an active chain itself dates this movie — as does the rather awestruck attitude with which it depicts instant-message exchanges and vacation-rental Web sites, which were novelties in 2006 and are now routine parts of modern life) with a shopping list of 115 classic films (“none of which I wrote,” he tells her), and as she works down Abbott’s list she learns not only about films but about life, particularly from Irene Dunne and Barbara Stanwyck about how to stand up for herself and show gumption in her relationships instead of letting men walk all over her.

Eventually Amanda falls for Graham and Iris falls for Miles (Jack Black), who worked as assistant to Amanda’s ex-boyfriend Ethan as well as scoring some films of his own, and who plays a game with her at Blockbuster: she points to a film in their stock and he hums a bit of the score. There’s a charming cameo that was apparently improvised on the spot: Iris points to The Graduate, Miles sings the “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” line from “Mrs. Robinson” and Dustin Hoffman turns up in the next stack and says, “I can’t believe this ... I can’t go anywhere. “ Apparently Hoffman just happened to be in the Blockbuster they were using for their location when Meyers and her cast and crew were shooting the scene, he improvised the line and Meyers included it in the final cut. While it’s a certain mark of star privilege that Cameron Diaz gets paired with Jude Law while Kate Winslet, a much more sophisticated and subtle actress, gets paired with Jack Black (though Black comes off as a rather sexy “bear” type here instead of the schlub he usually plays), The Holiday is a genuinely warm and charming film and was a welcome pre-holiday diversion. Sadly, though it was a success — imdb.com estimates the budget at $85 million (quite a sum for a non-spectacular comedy co-produced by Columbia and Universal) and the worldwide gross at $205 million and change — Nancy Meyers has only directed two films since (It’s Complicated, 2009; and The Intern, 2015), meeting the usual fate of women directors that they can’t get ahead in this business even if they do produce a hit.