The Holiday (review)

Too Bad and Too Good by Half

“You look like my Barbie doll,” a little girl tells Cameron Diaz in The Holiday. Bingo! She may be pretty, but the gal is a mannequin on the screen, a blob of inert plastic who cannot hope to engender our sympathy no matter how desperate she tries. That’s true of her every performance that I’ve seen, but matters are even more dire here, because her Amanda is supposed to be a woman who has some trouble expressing her emotionally: she can’t cry, even when she wants to. And she wants to cry a lot in The Holiday, cuz she’s just broken up with her boyfriend and she’s miserable, and then she meets Jude Law and chooses to wallow in even more romantic misery, but she simply cannot muster up the, you know, human capacity for genuine sorrow or even pouting self-pity that tears require. Diaz simply does not have it in her, as an actor, to let us peek at the hidden depths Amanda must have, if she is to be a compelling character, someone we want to spend a couple of hours with, behind the lack of tears. She’s just a blob of Barbie plastic who, when you pull her string, brightly spouts, “I can’t cry!”
It makes The Holiday hurt bad.

Or, half hurt bad. Because this is half a good movie — almost half a great movie. When The Holiday flips over to the Kate Winslet side of the story, it’s wonderful. See, Diaz’s Amanda, who owns her own company that makes movie trailers, and Winslet’s Iris, a writer with the London Daily Telegraph, switch houses for two weeks at Christmastime: Amanda stays at Iris’s Cotswold cottage, and Iris stays at Amanda’s Los Angeles mansion. The difference between the two actors, between their capabilities in making us share the emotions of their characters, is obvious right from the start. Diaz (In Her Shoes, Shrek 2) pouts and bats her lashes and stomps around and lets robotic body movement — it can hardly be called body “language” — stand in for emotion. With Winslet, though, it wells up from within: it’s not that she doesn’t move too, it’s that the movement gets its power from inner feeling bursting its way out. When Iris gets her first glimpse of Amanda’s gorgeous home, her gasp of “Holy shit!” is authentic and from the gut. When she runs around exploring the enormous house and screaming with delight at having landed in something out of a magazine — or, indeed, out of a movie — her exuberance is infectious, so much so that you forget to hate writer/director Nancy Meyers for yet again (see Something’s Gotta Give, for example) giving us a movie that looks as lived in and human as a Pottery Barn catalog. Winslet (Flushed Away, Finding Neverland) brings the human warmth with her.

It really is stunning how at odds the two halves of the movie are. Almost everything on the Diaz side, in England, is weird or uncomfortable or icky or just plain nonsensical, and almost everything on the Winslet side, in California, is smart and cozy and affectionate and just plain interesting. How totally boring for us that five minutes after she meets Iris’s brother, Graham (Jude Law [The Aviator, Closer], whose movie-star sparkle wipes the floor with Diaz’s vacuity), literally five minutes, she’s in bed with him… and how gross for Graham that this abrupt canoodling is taking place in his sister’s bed. Ewww. But how superbly charmed we are as Iris befriends Amanda’s neighbor Arthur (Eli Wallach [King of the Corner], so lovely here), a legendary screenwriter of golden-age Hollywood, and they help each other get out of their own personal ruts; there’s a true human connection there that the Diaz story cannot even begin to approximate. How utterly manufactured are Amanda’s imagined commentaries on her life, in the form of a movie-trailer-announcer voice castigating her, which further reduces the Brit side of the film to the level of the crassly commercial. But how delightfully tender and friendly is, say, the scene in which Iris and her new friend, movie composer Miles (Jack Black [Tenacious D in: The Pick of Destiny, Nacho Libre], just terrific), wander the aisles of a video store talking about movies, and, in the subtext, about themselves.

Talking: that’s where the real differences between Diaz and Winslet show up in stark relief. Amanda bares her soul — and the reason why she can’t cry — to Graham, in a long-winded monologue, and we don’t believe a word of it, and wish she would just shut up already. Iris bares her soul to Miles, explaining why she completely undestands his own romantic misery, cuz it’s just like hers, and we’re riveted — I was even moved to tears by her pain. Iris’s joy is positively uplifting, her heartache, well, aching. Amanda has nothing but happy-clown and sad-clown faces, and there’s not a thing funny or pleasant in that.

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13 thoughts on “The Holiday (review)”

  1. I’m no Cameron Diaz fan, but MB, you did say of her performance in In Her Shoes: “But Cameron Diaz? Who knew the girl could act, was willing to be unlikable onscreen, could use her physical beauty — and man, she is all legs — almost in a negative way, to challenge you to think not only about Maggie but about her own celebrity self as more than just a sex bomb?”

    So I guess there was ONE performance of hers you liked (btw, so did I, and to date it was the only one I liked as well).

    Anyway, when I rent this (doesn’t seem Theater Worthy) I’ll probably just fast forward through the Diaz portion and stick with the awesome Kate Winslet scenes only.

  2. She also turned in Vanilla Sky’s only worthwhile performance, and let’s not forget her pitch perfect Jessica Rabbit in The Mask. I like Cameron Diaz. Not saying she’s never turned in a bad performance, but I think she’s an underrated character actress.

    But she sure isn’t a Kate Winslet. Diaz is all wrong for a movie like this, because 1) she can’t turn a non-funny movie funny (see: The Sweetest Thing), and 2) she does empty-headed vacuity much better than something where she’s supposed to grow and learn and all that shit.

  3. You’re right, Anne-Kari, Diaz was good in *In Her Shoes.* But she’s reverted to her old form here.

    I thought she was pretty unappealingly ditzy in *The Mask.*

  4. Your review is spot on how I felt about this movie, apart from the fact that I found Jack Black a bit bemusing. I don’t exactly dislike Cameron Diaz – I thought she was great in In Her Shoes and Being John Malkovich, but she doesn’t seem to be able to bring anything to a script that isn’t self-evident. If the script is great, she can be great. If, as here, it’s fairly empty, she’s got nothing to add to it. Whereas Kate Winslet brings entire realms to everything, so that even when she’s in a fairly contrived situation, it seems real, because she’s real in it. If they’d cast someone else in her role, the whole film would have been a pretty depthless romcom. But somehow, you put Kate in the role, and it becomes something else.

  5. This is a movie I will not watch. The preview contains a clip where one of the women punches a man, & knocks him down and it’s played for laughs. Mentally, I town it around and try to imagine a scene where a man knocks a woman around just for cheap laughs, and I can’t find it.

    I have enjoyed all of the headline stars in other movies, Kate Winslet, in particular is consistently wonderful.

    That one clip means that the movie will not get my money.

  6. It could’ve been worse, John. She could’ve kneed him in the groin. (I just realized I have no idea how to spell “kneed” in this context.)

    I’ve read a number of the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and it’s very telling how many back-up the Flick Filosopher’s opinion. A lot of them wish that the movie could’ve just been about the Kate Winslet character.

  7. I just got back from Holiday and enjoyed it though I pretty much agree with you on Cameron Diaz.

    I didn’t find all of England “icky.” Her attempts to relate to the cottage were cute, and the scene with the kids was quite wonderful (give the girl a little break).

  8. hey cameron!!!!!! u are my number one actor!!!!! i really love u, please please please answer me !!!!!!! my dream is see u or gave to u something like photo, pic. or something!!! im not good this language because im not english…. PLEASE ANSWER ME your movies were pretty good, i mean THE BEST IN THE WORLD!!!!!!! -jeny-

  9. You know what’s simultaneously hilarious and sad about the above comment? It’s not spam. “Jeny” actually thinks that Cameron Diaz reads this site, will see her comment, and will respond.

    Sad. But hilarious…

  10. I completely disagreee with you and must stress how either you got the wrong end of the stick or you just cant understand the basics of movies. in every movie we love to see a realistic romance not as pathetic weoman who cant get over her ex, while cameron plays a young woman who on the outside appears a sucessful and happy indivial when underneath all that she isnt in touch with her emotions ever since her parents split up. GO CAMERON!!!!!! her nd jude law are wonderful together and i am a fan of jack black but whenever a kate scene would come on i would immediately go back to my popcorn as it was dull and un interesting. Give cameron a break shes a brilliant actress

  11. I saw this a few days ago, and totally agree that the Iris stuff formed half a good movie. Kate Winslet, Jack Black and Eli Wallach were charming and seemed to genuinely connect with each other.

    I could have done without the Amanda storyline completely, only that would have meant we would have lost the cottage and lovely English countryside. The setting almost made up for Amanda’s blahness.

  12. It’s not entirely clear why you are dismissing Cameron Diaz as a ‘hunk of Barbie Doll plastic”. Is it just because she doesn’t cry in this movie? Remember that actors usually follow the direction given to them. If Nancy Myers wanted tears, she could easily create them with some drops of glycerin.

    While Kate Winslet is (arguably) the better actress, she can’t save a movie with a middling script and premise. Jack Black’s regular-guy charm (and use of his musical talents) were the best part of “The Holiday”, for me. And the subplot about that elderly screenwriter didn’t have much dramatic payoff. It merely was a labored tribute to old movies.

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