The best bet for spreading cheer across multiplexes this holiday season, The Holiday is a finely polished piece of romantic cinema, with a generosity of spirit so all-encompassing that it's easy to forgive its occasional excesses.
Writer-director Nancy Meyers, whose previous hit was the similarly sharp Something's Gotta Give, clearly writes from a privileged perch: Her characters tend to be perversely rich, impeccably groomed and fabulously good-looking. Yet because she has the ability to imbue these high-and-mighty figures with flaws and doubts and in the process make them recognizably human, it's always easy to warm up to her players. Besides, a good love story knows no boundaries -- salary range, job title and zip code have nothing to do with it -- and in The Holiday, Meyers gives us two such tales for the price of one admission ticket.
Because this is a high-concept Hollywood product, the expository sequences are needlessly busy and in the end strain credibility anyway. But the thrust is that workaholic Amanda (Cameron Diaz), who cuts movie trailers for a living in LA, and mopey Iris (Kate Winslet), a journalist who lives out in the British countryside, are both unlucky in love and seeking to get away from the heartbreak of their daily lives. Simultaneously coming across a "home exchange" Web site, both women realize that they'd be happiest spending the Christmas season far from their troubles. Therefore, Amanda heads to Iris' quaint Surrey cottage while Iris ends up at Amanda's luxurious Hollywood mansion.
Initially, men are the farthest commodities from both women's minds, but, well, this is a rom-com, so a pair of guys do enter the scene. For Amanda, that means Iris' brother Graham (Jude Law), who initially appears to be a womanizer looking for an easy score. And for Iris, it means Miles (Jack Black), a film composer blessed with a quick wit but burdened with a beautiful but unappreciative girlfriend (Shannyn Sossamon). Taking momentary breaks from all the flirting and wooing, the film also introduces the character of Arthur (Eli Wallach), an Academy Award-winning screenwriter who fondly reminisces about Hollywood's Golden Age and uses the magic of the movies to teach wallflower Iris how to blossom as the "leading lady" in her own life.
On paper, The Holiday threatens to be drastically one-sided in the appeal of its twin storylines. How could the tale of perfect, pretty people Diaz and Law possibly compete with the plot strand involving the far more quirky Winslet and Black? Fortunately, both sides of the celluloid coin are equally entertaining, a desirable trait in a film that initially ran the risk of an inconvenient imbalance. Diaz, normally an underrated actress anyway, displays her comic chops as a frosty career woman who thaws under the gaze of a good man, while Law, never more charming, provides his character with an unexpected puppy-dog demeanor that softens those eyes that have been used to predatory effect in past titles like Closer and Alfie. Winslet, meanwhile, continues to shine no matter what the role -- though in both this and the recent Little Children, she's been cast as the frumpier of the two leading ladies (in Children, it's Jennifer Connelly playing the other woman), which is almost risible given her luminescent beauty. As for Black, he was an interesting choice to play the vulnerable music composer, and he contributes some of the film's funniest moments (including a choice sequence set in a video store, complete with a clever cameo by an award-winning actor).
At times, Meyer's script comes across as too calculated -- when Amanda states that she's been unable to shed a tear since she was a young girl, we know that the climax will feature waterworks. Meyers also lets a few hoary clichés slip past her: Amanda's dash across a field to be reunited with her love goes on for so long and takes her over so much terrain that we almost feel like we're watching an outtake from Chariots of Fire. But for the most part, her writing is so skilled that even moments that might have been shameless in lesser hands (such as an awards banquet held for the elderly Arthur) end up moving us.
At one point, Arthur does something sweet for Iris, then worries that it might have been too corny a gesture. "I like corny," replies Iris. And so do I, when it's presented as desirably as in The Holiday.
MEL GIBSON MAY or may not be a sorry excuse for a person, but as has been the case since the first brutish caveman painted a beautiful mural on the cavern wall, it's as important as ever to separate the individual from his artistry. And for the first sizable chunk of Apocalypto, it looks as if director Gibson has succeeded in creating something special.