Thursday, October 4, 2012

After Years Of Being Encouraged To View,I Sit Down And Fail To Enjoy The Holiday.

The Good: Moments (infrequent) of acting, Moments of charm
The Bad: Utterly predictable, Much of the character elements, Light on DVD bonus features, Acting
The Basics: In The Holiday, Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz lead a decent cast, almost universally performing poorly, in a boring, terribly predictable romantic comedy.

My mother has been on me to watch The Holiday for the last two years. In fact, it might be the very first movie she finished watching and insisted right away that I sit down and watch. I have been busy, between writing novels and reviewing movies that I want to review, but lately a break in my schedule and supply ran out, so I decided to give my mother's beloved movie a chance.

Nancy Meyers, who directed Something's Gotta' Give (reviewed here!) and What Women Want (reviewed here!), two movies I found terribly average, returns to write and direct this Christmas-themed romantic (alleged) comedy. I was largely underwhelmed by the movie, most notably by the acting. It seemed like all of the actors had moments they were decent in, until the moments they were used in familiar ways (save Kate Winslet, who was fine throughout). But for the most part, this is a predictable, obvious romance movie with predictable pairings and a pretty obvious resolution.

Iris Simpkins is working with the love of her life at a publication where she writes about society's great weddings. She is hopelessly in love - in an unrequited way - with Jasper Bloom, with whom she flirts and swaps Christmas gifts up until the moment that he abruptly announces he is engaged to be married to someone else. Devastated, Iris looks to flee. This, conveniently enough, occurs more or less at the same time that movie trailer maker Amanda Woods breaks up with her long-term boyfriend for an affair she suspected he had and soon confirms for her. Looking to get out of Los Angeles, she finds a place in Surrey, England, to swap houses with and the person she is swapping with happens to be Iris. As Iris goes to Los Angeles to a much bigger, luxurious place, Amanda finds herself in a cozy cottage in Surrey where there is nothing to do but wrestle with her personal demons.

In Amanda's house and neighborhood, Iris encounters the film composer Miles, but seems even more drawn to the elderly writer in the neighborhood, Arthur Abbott, who she rescues while he is wandering one day. As Iris avoids Jasper, she helps Arthur get into shape for an award's ceremony in his honor and discovers Miles is charming and less attached than he initially seems. Amanda, thrilled to be away from Ethan, finds herself in the company of Graham, who appears to be something of a womanizer . . . until Amanda meets the women in his life and realizes things have become complicated between them!

The Holiday starts slow, develops to boring and ends lackluster. In fact, the only parts of the movie worth watching are the moments between Iris and Arthur. Here's why: those parts of the movie use the cast in the best possible way and eliminate most of the problems the film possesses. They move, they have character elements that make sense (sort of) and the actors and acting in them are decent. Viewed out of context of the rest of the movie, even the problematic aspects of those scenes work.

Arguably the best moment of the film, the moment that actually has something original and different to say, in The Holiday comes in one of the scenes between Arthur and Iris. That moment has Arthur evaluating Iris as the "best friend" role in her own life. It is a decent monologue and a great concept and Iris latches onto it. The problem is, it doesn't fit Iris's character. Arthur gets it right; she is not the leading lady in her own life, but she isn't even the best friend; she is a non-speaking supernumerary (background performer). Iris is such a nonentity and there is so little interest paid in the way she is painted from the outset that her portions are painful and boring to watch up until the time that Arthur comes into the movie to share the screen with her.

Romantic comedies do not necessarily have to trade on surprise, so predictability in a movie like The Holiday is not necessarily devastating. But in this case, everything is predictable and it is unpleasant how simple the writer and director assumes the audience is. While the mood at the outset is interesting and appropriately painful, at least in the Iris/Jasper relationship, the film soon fails to trade on even that intrigue. As a result, Miles and Iris come together simply by the virtue that they are proximate to one another at the holidays. Neither one seems emotionally intelligent. Come to think of it, neither does Graham, who latches right on to Amanda, who has just ended a five-year relationship.

In the movie filled with people who are otherwise smart, but appear to be emotional idiots, the least interesting characters are Amanda Woods and Ethan. Amanda excising Ethan works, but the resulting need to get away makes little sense to those schooled in the way of psychology hardly seems real. For sure, there is no one way to react to trauma and change, but Amanda gets rid of Ethan, cuts a perfect trailer (which was one of the problems Ethan had with her) and flees rather than bury herself in her work. If the movie had even had a single scene where she wore out her workers cutting films before she was forced to take a vacation, the character would have worked much, much better.

That said, the only truly interesting man in the movie is Arthur, largely because he is the character that seems to be best acted (an irony, considering that Arthur is probably much closer to actor Eli Wallach than any of the other actors are to their characters). The problematic aspects of the movie are all exploded by the acting. Edward Burns and Rufus Sewell are strangely bland in their roles as rejected male love interests. Jude Law and Jack Black both have moments where they are decent, but those moments fade ridiculously quickly when both of them fall back on their standards. Law is fine up until the moment where he is expected to give the Jude Law Penetrating Look #5 that is supposed to make all of the women swoon and . . . completely does not fit his character of Graham.

Similarly, Jack Black is either stuck into his same niche or the part was altered when he was cast or the role of Miles was written with him in mind. I write this because Black is great up until a scene in a video store with Winslet. Miles - up until that point - has been friendly, but serious and grounded and the role had Jack Black actually acting. But in that scene, he begins singing various scores from movies and his character never recovers from that. Yes, it is after that that the scene from the trailer with the "brushing the boob" line comes up and that is a perfectly Jack Black delivery. Unfortunately, it is not in character for Miles so much as it is Black.

At least Jack Black is given the moments to play before his character or performance turn south. Cameron Diaz is not even given that chance. Instead, she starts off with the same bug-eyed, momentarily spastic performance she has become known for and she never pulls herself out of it. This is not even for a moment a stretch for her as an actress and it is reminiscent of several prior roles of hers.

The only actress who seems to hold it together is Kate Winslet, who is decent as Iris, though the character is far more boring than Arthur or Miles ever admits. Winslet is good, but the role is not great.

This is, perhaps, emblematic of the entire movie. The Holiday is a ridiculously simple pitch concept: two women swap houses and fall in love with people in their new setting as a result. The problem is it never becomes more than that and it is not a great concept even with that. On DVD, there are previews for other movies and a commentary track with writer/director Nancy Meyers that I was not bored or interested enough to subject myself to. There are plenty of other movies out there I would rather devote my time and energy to.

For other works with Eli Wallach, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Mystic River
Keeping The Faith


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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