Jingle hell: Will we ever be free of The Holiday?
Christmas – the Most Wonderful Time of the Year – has gifted humanity some truly awful stuff over the past 2,022 years. Bitterly boiled sprouts. Brexit arguments around the dinner table. Mrs Brown’s Boys specials. But very few reach the depths of the festive season’s most cringe-inducing nadir: the sight and sound of Cameron Diaz in the 2006 romantic comedy The Holiday belting out a drunken rendition of The Killers’ “Mr Brightside”.
Ordinarily, that’s the exclusive domain of beered-up dads, and usually an expression of having no discernible taste in music. In The Holiday, it’s an expression of a sister doing it for herself in a man-free zone – until Jude Law appears at the door and gives a wounded, single-dad sob story. At which point Diaz’s scorned sister realises that she needs a man after all.
Yes, welcome to The Holiday, an interminable Christmassy non-treat (all two hours and 16 minutes of it) in which two heartbroken women – Diaz’s movie trailer producer, Amanda, and Kate Winslet’s doe-eyed Daily Telegraph journalist, Iris – swap homes for Christmas. (“Are there any men in your town?” “Zero.” “When can I come?”). Inevitably, they find love on opposite sides of the pond: Amanda with pseudo-complicated Graham, played by Law, in the British countryside; and Iris with irritatingly innocent movie composer Miles, played by Jack Black, in glitzy LA. “I like corny,” says Iris. Which is just as well, really.
The Holiday has somehow become a perennial telly favourite at Christmastime (switch on ITV4 at this very second, The Holiday is almost certainly on). Sure, so have stinkers like Santa Claus: The Movie and Jingle All the Way, but The Holiday is more than just a dollop of festive froth. The Holiday, the kind of sentimental gumpf that could curdle eggnog, has legitimised the Hallmark movie, or cheap, nauseating affairs with made-for-TV vibes. Indeed, the mystifying popularity of the film – $205.8m at the box office and a seasonal ubiquity behind only Santa, Wham! and Christ himself – has all but killed the quality Christmas movie. Following on from The Holiday, the genre has been dominated by a slew of unlucky-in-love comedies – all packed with quirky kawinkidinks and cutesy misunderstandings. Most of which are currently clogging up your algorithms on Netflix and seem to star Vanessa Hudgens.
I knew The Holiday was trouble before I’d clapped eyes on it. In Christmas 2006, I did a bit of stereotypically gendered cinemagoing: I went to see Casino Royale on one of the multiplex screens; my partner and auntie went to see The Holiday on another. Meeting me in the foyer afterwards, my partner gave me a full report. As I’d been gripped by the final minutes of Daniel Craig’s tough-as-old-boots Bond reinvention – almost to the second that Craig finally said, “The name’s Bond. James Bond” – my auntie had stood up during The Holiday’s end credits and loudly announced: “That was the best film I’ve seen in ages!” Dear old auntie – not known for her critical eye – was a harbinger of the waffle that The Holiday would visit upon me every Christmas like an unwelcome Santa, not coming down the chimney but via the ITV schedules.
Written, directed and produced by Nancy Meyers (of Something’s Gotta Give and Father of the Bride fame), The Holiday is like a film that’s been raised on a sickly diet of Love Actually and Bridget Jones’s Diary. The result is a regurgitation of plummy women who fall for unpleasant poshos; stomach-churningly earnest men; and a fairytale-like cottage in Surrey, where men like Jude Law appear as if by magic to unthreateningly seduce troubled women.
Amanda is a painfully high-maintenance, wine o’clock stereotype. “I want to eat carbs without wanting to kill myself,” she says, panicked about ageing. Too frosty to be loved properly, she hasn’t cried since she was 15. Fear not: 45 minutes with Jude Law will have her weeping like a proper woman soon enough. Iris, trying to leave behind Rufus Sewell’s scumbag adulterer, Jasper, is a blubbering mess – pining after men and breaking down at the mere mention of the word “single”.
The men in The Holiday are no better. Law’s character is a dreamy widower, though the wholesome banter with his daughters is likely to make any real parent sick on the spot. He spouts self-analysing psychobabble and admits to having “the classic male problem of no follow-through” – ie not calling back the women he’s slept with – like Joey from Friends but with a conscience. He’s also prone to lines that are desperate for Jerry Maguire-like status. “I finally know what I want and that is a miracle,” he tells Amanda. “And what I want is you.” (The earnest single dad as a love interest is a staple of modern festive romcoms, usually with a wise-beyond-her-years daughter who does some matchmaking on his behalf.)
Black’s character, meanwhile, is too saccharine for his own good. There isn’t a man in existence who wouldn’t recognise lines like “I’m just a one-woman-at-a-time kinda guy” for being exactly that: a line. The only decent fella here is Arthur, played by Eli Wallach, an old screenwriter whom Iris befriends in Los Angeles. Arthur’s function is to hark back to the Golden Age of Hollywood and explain the tropes of romantic comedies. Indeed, The Holiday tries to have its Christmas pudding and eat it, too, convincing itself that it’s self-aware. See Amanda imagining her love life in the form of Hollywood-ised movie trailers, or Miles singing the score to The Graduate while Dustin Hoffman – in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo – suddenly appears nearby.
The irony is a film that pertains to be a classic Hollywood tale, as seen in its endless prattling about old scripts and scores, has encouraged an ever-worsening trend in Christmas movies. In the eternal mission to pump out easy content, Netflix has released a stream of gimmicky, Holiday-lite romances: The Princess Switch films; The Knight Before Christmas; Christmas Inheritance; A Christmas Prince; Holidate; and A Castle for Christmas – all knowingly awful, all watched semi-ironically (but watched nonetheless), and usually featuring a fading star name, plus a supporting cast of actors who, tragically, can’t act.
These are Hallmark movies by any other name – in fact, many of them are produced by the Motion Picture Corporation of America, which also makes output for the Hallmark Channel. The Holiday has made this kind of film go legit. The latest offender is Netflix’s Falling for Christmas, in which Lindsay Lohan’s spoiled heiress tumbles off a mountain, gets amnesia and falls for a schmaltzy single dad. You can also lump Paul Feig’s utterly bizarre-but-at-least-enjoyable Last Christmas into that category, a film about heart transplants, ghosts, pro-immigration sentiment and, erm, the hits of George Michael.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for the rubbish Christmas film. As a kid I delighted in waking up during the school holidays and watching that TV movie about Fred Savage befriending a vagrant. For every decent effort at a Christmas film now – a rarity, in all honesty, such as the Kurt Russell Santa caper The Christmas Chronicles – we get three (yes, three) Princess Switch-es. Being bad has gone mainstream. I blame The Holiday.
The worst part, of course, is that I watch them all. Annually. Because what is Christmas if not an exercise in enduring the very worst of the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, all in the name of tradition?