According to a recent study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, film criticism is a field overwhelmingly dominated by (surprise, surprise) white men. Not anymore. In Refinery29's new series, our female movie critic will give fresh consideration to the movies we love, hate, or love to hate. It's time for a rewrite.
As far as Christmas movies go, The Holiday is pretty close to perfect. Nancy Meyers’ charming 2006 Christmas fable about two women who swap lives and perfect homes for two weeks to escape their messy problems boasts one of the best of the director’s signature kitchens, a fabulous array of cashmere turtlenecks and shearling coats, and enough twinkly lights to circle the world twice-over. Plus, has anyone in the history of time been more attractive than weepy single dad Jude Law in glasses? There’s even a Hanukkah scene, for people who, like myself, are Jewish but are filled with Yuletide spirit — the best of both worlds!
Still, what makes The Holiday interesting — and worth reexamining more than a decade after its release — is that unlike most holiday-themed movies, it exhorts the viewer to take time for themselves, not just others. It’s the ultimate self-care flick. Take the ending twist, for example, which involves Iris (Kate Winslet), the British journalist who has the misfortune of covering weddings while nursing a broken heart. After nearly two weeks spent desperately trying to forget about Toxic Hot Man Jasper (Rufus Sewell), the co-worker and former lover who once cheated on her but won’t let her move on, he shows up at her holiday dream home in Los Angeles. At first, she’s thrilled. But when it soon becomes abundantly clear that Jasper doesn’t have the slightest intention of giving up his fiancée for Iris, she snaps, and gives him a rousing “I’m done being in love with you” speech, before throwing him out of her life forever.
Unrequited love aside, most of us have experienced a similar moment, when suddenly, you realise your self-worth is not tied in this one person or experience. It’s incredibly freeing to finally know, in one flash of crystal clear sanity, that you are better than whatever has been keeping you down. And in a year where women have faced our fair share of frustrations and obstacles, Iris’ tirade is a cathartic repudiation of all the the toxic men who made 2018 a roiling miasma of despair. We’re done with you!
Over at The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw called it a “glutinous film,” compared Jude Law’s character to a serial killer, and christened Jack Black “chubby, yet hubby material.” The A.V. Club’s Scott Tobias gave it a “D” rating, writing: “‘Nancy Meyers’ isn't a real person. ‘Nancy Meyers’ is a robot invented by the studios as a cost-cutting measure to produce the most synthetic romantic comedies imaginable.” At the Wall Street Journal, Joe Morgenstern called it “clearly designed to be a chick flick,” adding that “one bad sign of many in Nancy Meyers' The Holiday is how much the movie's home-swapping women, played by Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz, talk to themselves.”
All in all, it isn’t that surprising — although it is tiresome — that a movie about two women, directed by a woman, would be dismissed as a “chick flick.” Meyers has been fighting that kind of criticism her entire career, even as she has written, and/or directed such classics as Private Benjamin, Father of the Bride, and The Parent Trap. (For the record, Charles Shyer, Meyers’ ex-husband who directed those first two, carries no such stigma.)
And in a way, The Holiday reflects that. It’s a movie about women who have to get away from their immediate environment to be themselves, to emote, to eat cheese and carbs, and drink wine straight from the bottle without fear of judgement, or retribution. Amanda (Cameron Diaz), a movie-trailer maker from Los Angeles, breaks up with her cheating boyfriend (Ed Burns) — another Bad Man who once told her she was bad at sex, and is obsessed with the fact that she can’t cry — and finds herself in need of a break. Over in London, Iris (Winslet) needs a break from Jasper and his seductive curls. And so, after a very brief internet interaction, Amanda ends up in Iris’ picturesque cottage in Surrey, while the latter sets off for Amanda’s Beverly Hills mansion.
Whose arc you care about more shifts depending on your own situation over the years. The first time I saw the film, I was all about Amanda and Graham (Jude Law), Iris’ older brother who shows up drunk in the middle of the night, not knowing there is a stranger staying in his sister’s house. And while I will never not love Law — or his alter-ego, Mr. Napkin Head — I now find myself feeling a lot more sympathetic towards Iris.
This was Winslet’s only foray into rom-com territory, and she’s a treasure. It’s a supreme injustice that she’s paired with Jack Black, the film’s only casting misstep, whose insistence on humming every film score known to man (he is a film composer, get it?) is impossibly grating. But again, he is not the point of her story. What’s more, the film wisely focuses more time and attention on Iris’ lovely friendship with her new neighbour, legendary screenwriter Arthur Abbott (the late Eli Wallach), who regales her with tales of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Winslet and Wallach share infinitely more chemistry than her and Black, whose character, Miles, bizarrely narrates his every creepy gesture (lingering after a cheek kiss, a cringey boob graze) under the very mistaken impression that it makes him seen like a nice guy. The scene in which Arthur gets honoured for his achievement in cinema is a tearjerker that nicely dovetails with Iris’ own moment of self-empowerment — theirs is a touching, platonic love story.
Is The Holiday utterly predictable? Of course! That’s part of what gives a Christmas movie staying power. It’s comforting, like a warm cashmere throw that you can snuggle in while the world turns white outside. It alternates between feeling modern (AirBnB would be founded two years later, in 2008) and hilariously dated. (Typing “vacation spots” into Google! That fake trailer starring James Franco and Lindsay Lohan!)
But there’s a deeper nostalgic element at play that transcends wistful regret for early aughts bootcut jeans. The film is a solid example of studio rom-coms, a genre that faded from cinemas soon after. The star-studded cast, big-name director, and renowned composer Hans Zimmer stand as reminders of at time when big Hollywood studios owned the Christmas movie market, investing in romantic comedies and family-friendly flicks that dominated the holiday box office, and were hugely popular. The Holiday grossed $205,135,324 worldwide. (For comparison, Love, Actually grossed $246,942,017 just three years earlier). Today, Netflix wants to own Christmas cheer (not to mention rom-coms), churning out dozens of films for audiences nostalgic and hungry for the genre. The Holiday is a film that (sometimes maddeningly) loves to talk about, and celebrate movies!
The film also has its flaws. Like so many of Meyers’ films, it is overwhelmingly white. The only people of colour are those working service jobs around Amanda’s large home. And as Elizabeth Logan pointed out over at Glamour in a piece timed to the film’s 10th anniversary, the individual stakes are fairly low: These are affluent women with very little to lose (although Iris does briefly consider suicide, in a moment that should be treated more seriously than it is). The Holiday exists in a world where women can run in three-inch heels, wear necklaces to bed, and somehow emerge from a drunken stupor with their hair perfectly blown out and lipstick intact, ready to be sexily embarrassed by a stupidly hot hookup who is already downstairs making coffee, because he’s also a dear. It's the magic of Christmas at work!
What’s more, it doesn’t actually tie up loose ends. We don’t really know what happens after the end credits roll on our lovebirds partying it up in that beautiful country cottage. What does the New Year bring? Does Amanda quit her high-paying career that she’s worked hard for to move to London for book-editor Graham? Does he move his two daughters halfway around the world to be with her? (He IS daddy!) What about Iris? Presumably she could find work as a reporter in Los Angeles, but… in this economy?
Ultimately, these are all useless questions. The Holiday simply doesn’t exist beyond the confines of Christmas. It’s an appealing escapist fantasy that is actually about escaping one’s reality, a rom-com whose core message is for women to learn to love themselves, with an added bonus of romantic happy endings for all.
2018 can have Love, Actually. In 2019, let’s aim for The Holiday.