Trading living spaces

“The Holiday”Columbia PicturesWritten and directed by Nancy MyersStarring: Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Jack Black, Eli Wallach, Edward Burns and Rufus SewellRated PG-13/138 minutesOpens Dec. 8, 2006Three-and-a-half out of four stars

In Nancy Meyer’s charmingly preposterous romantic comedy “The Holiday,” characters played by Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz swap homes (in Surrey, England, and Los Angeles, respectively) for two weeks to get away from work and boyfriend worries.

“People actually do that?” someone asks Diaz, to which she vaguely responds, “Apparently.”

I was asking myself the same question. These two women–complete strangers to one another–have a two-minute instant message communication and then agree to trade homes the very next day. Winslet even trusts Diaz to look after her too-cute-for-words dog. If any background checks were done or paperwork filled out, the movie never mentions it–not that audience members would be riveted to their seat watching Diaz chew on her pen over home insurance forms (but then again, I’m inclined to watch her sprightly blue eyes do just about anything). She and Winslet don’t even have a telephone conversation.

I looked up home exchanges on the Internet, and they really do exist. offers just such a service, touting it as a great way to nestle into a new community and that “your exchange partner will take care of your pets if you can’t take them with you!” (emphasis on the sentence-ending exclamation point, as if this sounds like a good idea).

In other words, participating in such an exchange is a leap of faith–much like swallowing the premise of this movie. Meyers does the smart thing, however, and moves quickly past the setup and immediately involves us in the romantic entanglements of her chatty, articulate, successful, very likable characters.

Winslet plays Iris, a newspaper writer who pens wedding announcements–including the engagement of caddish co-worker Jasper (Rufus Sewell, once again playing a character who specializes in sleazy gestures). They had a fling several years ago, and now he’s the target of her unrequited love.

Diaz plays Amanda, a movie-trailer cutter who throws out her cheating boyfriend (Edward Burns, whose nasal whine reaches a dog-torturing pitch when he gets angry). He accuses her of being emotionally closed off, and maybe he’s right–she hasn’t physically shed a tear since she was a child.

The two women find each other online and switch houses and friends, leading to lots of fluffy scenes in which the humble Iris excitedly bounces around Amanda’s lavish California home, while Amanda painfully adapts to Iris’s quaint cottage in England (it looks like something Thomas Kinkade might have painted after a night of really great sex). Of course, both women are dead set on not hooking up with any local men–that is until Amanda meets Iris’s brother Graham (Jude Law) and Iris meets Amanda’s musical friend Miles (Jack Black).

All of this sounds obnoxiously predictable, but Meyers fills (more like overstuffs) the story with delightful supporting characters and unexpected developments, like Iris’ sweet friendship with her geriatric neighbor (Eli Wallach), who, as it turns out, is a reclusive, Oscar-winning screenwriter. She helps him out of his shell while also dealing with awkward romantic advances from Miles.

As for Law, it at first appears that his character is going to be a variation of the well-dressed womanizers he’s played in every movie from “The Talented Mr. Ripley” to “Alfie,” but we discover something about his living arrangements that gives his character surprising depth.

When he and Diaz are together, the amount of gorgeousness up on the screen is almost blinding. I wanted to get down on my knees and worship: “I’m not worthy! I’m not worthy!”

Winslet and Black, a strange match, don’t set off nearly as many sparks. There’s a funny scene at a video store in which he sings to her the scores of movies he pulls off the shelf, but the two of them don’t seem to be on the same level, maturity-wise. He’s like a little boy trying to impress his friend’s older sister.

At 138 minutes, “The Holiday” is too long, but by the time I left the theater, I felt like I’d really gotten to know and love these characters. They almost make the idea of swapping houses with absolute strangers sound like a good idea–almost.

“Wow, you are so much more attractive than me! This gives ugs everywhere false hope.” Jack Black marvels at his catch, Kate Winslet, in “The Holiday.”