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.