In England, Iris Simpkins just can’t seem to get over her dream man. More than three years after her relationship ended with a co-worker she still eyes his every move from across the room and turns spineless whenever he’s around. It’s even rumored she continues to do his laundry. Finally, their odd, lingering connection hits a wall when he conveniently fails to mention his engagement to another co-worker. Iris is devastated.
In Los Angeles, Amanda Woods is at a similar crossroads. The Hollywood advertising exec has just dumped her boyfriend after discovering he cheated on her. She’s had it with men, with relationships, with life. On a whim she searches the Internet for a getaway locale and discovers Iris’ cozy English cottage is up for rent. There’s a catch, though: it’s a “house exchange,” meaning Iris and Amanda would have to literally swap homes for two weeks.
With the loneliness of the Christmas holidays already setting in on these two singles, they both decide to go for it and take a much-needed vacation. Iris quickly finds out that sometimes a change of scenery is all it takes as she stumbles into a friendship with Miles, a movie soundtrack composer who works with Amanda. Meanwhile, back in England, Amanda’s hitting it off with Graham—who just happens to be Iris’ brother.
Iris sees an old man wandering lost around her neighborhood in L.A. and gives him a ride back home. The kind gesture sparks a sweet relationship between the two, and Iris comes to discover that the retiree, named Arthur Abbott, used to be one of Hollywood’s premier screenwriters. She later convinces him to accept a lifetime achievement award from the Writers Guild Association by offering to help him walk again without the use of a walker. In the end, Iris’ tough love helps him achieve the unexpected.
The negative impact of divorce on teenagers gets highlighted through a story shared by Amanda. In a tender scene, a couple of Arthur’s friends considerately reminisce and sing the praises of his remarkable wife who’s passed on.
Amanda jokingly prays for the ability to shed a tear. After getting invited to a Hanukah party hosted by Iris, Miles comments that he didn’t know she had joined the local temple.
Scant minutes after meeting, Amanda and Graham kiss passionately and end up in the bedroom. More than once we see them tangled in the sheets post-sex. On one occasion Amanda is shown in her bra while Graham appears shirtless.
Why do the two consummate their infatuation so quickly? Despite being a widowed father of two who’s earnestly trying to do the best he can as a single parent, Graham is a womanizer with a long list of one-night stands. He justifies this “other side” by explaining that compartmentalizing his life in such a way is the only way he can stay sane and potentially meet the right woman.
Amanda, on the other hand, is too wrapped up in her work to be concerned about sex. Therefore, with the same segregating mentality as Graham, she reasons away her impromptu physical relationship as simply a no-strings-attached, two-week fling. “This is what a vacation is all about—do the unexpected,” she says, trying to justify it to herself.
When their purely physical relationship seems to be turning into something more, the couple does admit that “sex makes everything complicated, even when you don’t have it.” Unfortunately, their conclusion is simply that, in light of this, “it’s usually better to have sex.”
Beyond this flimsy philosophizing about carnal desires, several crude and frank comments revolve around sex. Stories are told about both Iris’ and Amanda’s sexual pasts, and how their former lovers cheated on them with co-workers. (Amanda’s ex has the nerve to partially blame his cheating on her.) During a phone call, Iris’ old flame seductively reminisces about the way she looked in a bikini, despite the fact that he’s engaged to another woman. She also comments about Graham “getting into [Amanda’s] knickers.”
After a night of drinking, Amanda is embarrassed to find her bra on a chair in the living room. The camera also catches her bathing in a tub filled with bubbles. Several women wear low-cut dresses.
Amanda lands two hard blows to the face of her cheating boyfriend. One of her movie trailers is shown twice, and the action-flick promo is loaded with gunshots and a big explosion. Once in England, Amanda has trouble adjusting to driving on the opposite side she’s used to, and during a trip into town she almost runs over a bicyclist and comes close to colliding with an oncoming vehicle. While staying at Rosewood Cottage, she accidentally bumps her head (hard) on one of the house’s beams.
Miles uses the f-word once. Iris starts to, but the obscenity gets cut off. The s-word is also spoken once. God’s name gets misused almost two-dozen times. And more than a dozen other milder profanities are used, as are British crudities “bloody” and “b-gger.” Graham predicts one of his young daughters will be “a real ball-buster.”
Alcohol plays a major part in this cross-Pond singles scene. While casual drinking at holiday parties, dinners, etc., is predictably omnipresent, the movie also makes light of getting drunk. Graham first meets Amanda while he’s “inordinately p—ed,” and she later drinks herself unconscious. She also guzzles from a bottle while shopping. Wine, champagne, sake, brandy and beer all get downed or mentioned.
A friend of Iris’ smokes a cigarette at an office party. While playing a favorite character for his young daughters, Graham pretends to smoke, but later tells them that “smoking’s really bad for you.” Iris jokes that her last New Year’s was brought in with tears and valium.
A depressed Iris lights a match over her gas stove, then, after putting out the match, tries to inhale the toxic fumes. She almost immediately chokes and questions her own sanity, and the whole scene ends up getting played for laughs. While standing outside Iris’ house, Graham threatens to urinate on her doorstep if he isn’t allowed to use the restroom.
As the “totally with it,” modern, über-chick flick, The Holiday leaves no stone unturned when it comes to offering the expected benchmarks of the genre. If women don’t swoon over Jude Law’s good looks or single-dad charm, they’ll certainly fall for Jack Black’s surprising sensitivity and (less surprising) sense of humor. They’ll be expected to cry over the tenderness of Kate Winslet’s friendship with an old Hollywood veteran, and they’ll cheer at her “you go, girl!” rant against an ex. They’ll laugh at the Cameron Diaz dance-in-your-pajamas montage. The moviemakers even toss in an adorable puppy that’ll melt the hearts of even some men.
Incredibly, none of those formulaic concepts are a detriment to this slow-building affair. They actually end up adding up to what becomes an unexpectedly inspired take on singleness in the 21st century. As Iris, Kate Winslet brilliantly offers a telling glimpse of the tragic depths those searching for love will go to receive it, even when they know it will soon fade away. Yet it’s the follow-through on that insightful point that spoils the film—namely, the lax, completely postmodern take on sex. Iris and Miles’ friendship is not at fault here, as it remains refreshingly innocent throughout. But Graham and Cameron Diaz’ Amanda are a whole other—immoral—story.
In the movie’s opening scenes, the camera catches a glimpse of Graham as Iris narrates to us that “love can be found—even for just a night.” It’s a minor, foreshadowing line that’s hardly noticed in the midst of her monologue. And yet it becomes an underlying theme of The Holiday. Graham and Amanda’s meet-greet-and-slip-between-the-sheets introduction seemingly happens because these two attractive, lonely people have nothing better to do. That wild, impromptu, “meaningless” sex leads to more fooling around until, eventually, true love comes and slaps them in the face, rewarding them for their wanton efforts.
Of course by the time that magic moment rolls around, most moviegoers will have already dismissed the couple’s torrid beginnings. We’ve learned too much about their tragic histories to blame them for such a “minor” indiscretion, haven’t we? Sure, they may be imperfect individuals who sleep around a lot, but boy, are they perfect for each other or what?!
And without realizing it, we’ve bought the lie that sex is a singles’ sport. Winners are awarded lifelong love. Losers just have to keep playing the game. And the prettier (or handsomer) you are, the better your odds become.