A cheerful 'Holiday'

Times Staff Writer

The alluring surfaces of other people's lives can be deceiving, though generally not in a Nancy Meyers comedy, where the thin veneer of fantasy cloaks ... more fantasy. "The Holiday" is the story of two single women who swap houses over Christmas and, because they're nice girls, wind up with the boyfriends they deserve. If you wrapped Jude Law in a bow and tucked Jack Black into a stocking with a leather bone, it couldn't be cozier or more Christmasy.

Kate Winslet, who -- and this seems to settle it -- can do no wrong, plays Iris Simpkins, an alternate version of what Bridget Jones might have been had she been allowed to retain a shred of her Englishness and dignity. Even so, Iris is a doormat, desperately hung up on her ex-boyfriend, Jasper (Rufus Sewell), who dumped her three years ago but continues to string her along like a deflated helium balloon. When Jasper announces his engagement to another woman, Iris troops back to her cottage, briefly and comically considers suicide, and is saved by a message from Amanda (Cameron Diaz), a Los Angeles workaholic who has come across Iris' cottage on a home exchange website.

Amanda is the other girl meat. Successful, stressed to the gills, dauntingly self-sufficient, her quirk is that she can't cry, which means she can't feel, which means her live-in boyfriend (briefly played by Ed Burns) has been driven into the arms of a much younger and presumably more lachrymose receptionist. Diaz knows the type -- she's seen her in the movies -- and she delivers her lines in a cursory rat-a-tat-tat that gives the impression she somehow knows how she's going to respond to things before they happen.

So Iris decamps for Los Angeles and Amanda goes to Surrey, where Iris has neglected to mention she has an outrageously attractive, bookish, sensitive and saintly older brother named Graham (Jude Law) who is prone to dropping by her cottage in the middle of the night. Why not? The house exchange confirms our most improbable visions of how the other side of the pond lives -- it's as though Nora Ephron had swapped houses with Merchant-Ivory or Jackie Collins with Mother Goose. When a wedding announcements writer for a newspaper lives alone in a snow-dusted, storybook cottage at the end of a country lane and a movie trailer editor lives in a multimillion dollar faux-cienda in Brentwood, you have to wonder what else you should be skeptical about. Could Law's character turn out to be an ax murderer? Well, no. But that's not what you paid for.

Graham shows up drunk at the door of the cottage on Amanda's first night in England. (It sounds like a Canterbury Tale, but instead of mistaking each other for the golden retriever under the covers, the couple negotiate their way into bed.) Amanda takes him for a womanizing party boy. As do we -- it's hard to strike all that tabloid juice from the record just because the lights are dimmed.

Meanwhile, back in Amanda's luxurious pad, Iris' lust is initially reserved for the interiors. Soon afterward, she meets Arthur (Eli Wallach), a legendary screenwriter in his 90s who introduces her to the concept of "meet cute." As Arthur schools her in the ways of classic screwball comedies, he gently nudges her in the direction of Miles (Jack Black), a film composer and the business partner of Amanda's ex, who like Iris can't resist a toxic love.

Like a magic trick in reverse, "The Holiday" reveals the mechanics of the formula while trying to keep up the illusion. By the time Iris meets Miles, she has started to take on some of the characteristics of the romantic comedy heroine, the better to clear her hurdles. It's a testament to Winslet's talents that she can emerge from a door-slamming scene in which she declares she's got "gumption" relatively unscathed.

And Law pulls off the seemingly impossible, remaining credibly sexy and funny as his character is piled with so many beautific attributes you half expect his head to start glowing. Diaz strikes the off-note, but then you tend to think it's not her fault. The character of Amanda is one of those newfangled Hollywood confections that would make Irene Dunne cry; an anxious, pandering combination of tough and perky, bitter but hot. It would have been something to see an Amanda truer to character, someone cool and caustic and intimidatingly out of reach. And it would have been better yet to see Law cleverly dismantle her defenses rather than douse them in treacle. But for that you'd have to go back to the days when Arthur was hot.


Rated PG-13 for sexual content and some strong language. 2 hours and 18 minutes. In general release.

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