Trading Spaces

Home-swapping in Holiday. Plus, Leo DiCaprio’s turn in Blood Diamond.

Kate Winslet and Jack Black in The Holiday

The Holiday (Columbia Pictures) is built around a premise so friendly it may inspire a new subgenre: the house-swap rom-com. Kate Winslet plays Iris, a British journalist who’s trying to get over a toxic affair. Iris wants to exchange her storybook cottage in the Cotswolds for just about anyplace on earth that’s far away. Amanda (Cameron Diaz) is the owner of an L.A. movie-trailer company (in a shrill running joke, she imagines her own life narrated in trailer-ese) who’s just dumped her two-timing boyfriend and is also fantasizing about escape. In a spontaneous IM chat on a home-exchange site, they agree to trade houses for the Christmas holiday.

Thus begins an overlong but strangely lulling idyll during which Amanda will fall for Iris’ dreamboat brother Graham (Jude Law) while Iris slowly comes around to the charm of a film composer named Miles (Jack Black.) In a subplot, Iris herself charms the pants off her next-door neighbor, an old Hollywood screenwriter, played by an unrecognizable but endearing Eli Wallach—yes, that’s Tuco from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The Holiday hits all its expected marks—female empowerment, impromptu dinner parties, learning to trust again—with rhythmic predictability. Everything has a bourgeois glaze of consumer pleasantness around it—those scholars struggling to define what “whiteness means should look at some Nancy Meyers movies. But it’s far less sickly than plenty of yuletide offerings, last year’s The Family Stone being one shudder-worthy example.

Meyers’ films are slackly paced, yes—The Holiday could lose at least 20 minutes—but in a way that feels somehow generous and roomy. The characters pace and putter around in the story like animals building their nests, and by the time they finally settle down with their mates, we have a grudging affection for them. Like Diane Keaton’s character in Something’s Gotta Give, Winslet’s Iris is a bumbling, self-pitying mess, but underneath you just know she has romantic-heroine potential—what Arthur the screenwriter, a fan of Barbara Stanwyck and Irene Dunne, calls “gumption.” Though it’s not clear whether Cameron Diaz is adept at playing a brittle, self-involved Hollywood type or simply is that type, she makes Amanda convincing, if not altogether likeable.

The strangest casting choice, of course, is Jack Black as an unironic romantic lead (or at least sub-lead; Law and Diaz are clearly the A couple to Black and Winslet’s schlubbier B.) With a lesser partner, Black’s trademark mania, reined in as it is here, might have felt out of place. But Winslet is so present as an actress that she gives Black’s nuttiness room to resonate. A late scene in which they improvise a nonsense song together at a keyboard captures the goofy energy of a new crush.

As much as anything, The Holiday is a movie about how changing your location can change your life. And during the season when the “home for the holidays” theme is drummed into our heads (even as many of us long to be anywhere but around the hearth with our annoying loved ones), there’s something to be said for the notion of travel as a curative, not to mention Christmas Eve alone with a plate of fettucine.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou in Blood Diamond 

With his role in Blood Diamond (Warner Bros.), I’m finally starting to get Leonardo DiCaprio. As an earnest romantic hero (Titanic, Romeo+Juliet) he’s utterly unconvincing and somewhat slappable, but as an amoral rogue or a spoiled despot (Catch Me If You Can, The Man in the Iron Mask) he’s got something. Leo’s appeal derives precisely from his truculent brattiness; I love the oft-cited biographical detail that he was “nearly” kicked off the children’s TV show Romper Room at age 5 for bad behavior. Nearly!

Danny Archer, the Zimbabwean mercenary DiCaprio plays in Blood Diamond, would have been kicked off Romper Room for good. He’s an unreconstructed cynic, a smuggler, a thief, and possibly a racist (though to this movie’s credit, it acknowledges that the dialogue between races in Africa sounds very different from the one here). DiCaprio grabs this juicy antihero role and heads for the end zone, right down to an accent that, though I can’t vouch for its authenticity, sounds thoroughly unaffected and consistent. (Unlike, say, Tim Robbins’ in the recent To Catch a Fire.)

Unfortunately, one of Blood Diamond’smultiple problems is that it feels too much like a vehicle for DiCaprio. In its focus on the swaggering Danny, the film gives short shrift to his black African counterpart, Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou, who must be getting tired of playing the noble-African role after In America and Amistad). Captured by a brutal insurgent group in his native Sierra Leone, Solomon is forced to dig for diamonds. He finds a huge, rare pink stone on his first day out, and manages to bury it in a secret place. The rest of the film is about the deals everyone wants to cut over this rock. In exchange for the diamond’s location, Danny agrees to help Solomon track down his missing son, Dia (Kagiso Kuypers). The rebels, who are training Dia as a child soldier, are willing to kill pretty much anyone to get the stone, sell it on the international market, and buy arms for their civil war.

Jennifer Connelly, whose extreme physical beauty is approaching an actionable offense, costars as Maddy Bowen, an investigative journalist for the dull-sounding periodical Vital Affairs. She and Leo debate cynicism and idealism while dancing in bars, and eventually he agrees to be her source for an exposé of the diamond trade.

Blood Diamond is a by-the-numbers message picture, to be sure. When in dire need of some exposition on the international jewel trade, it’s not above cutting to a discussion around a G8 conference table. But the director, Edward Zwick, is craftsman enough that the pace never slackens, the chase scenes thrill, and the battle scenes sicken. And if it makes viewers think twice about buying their sweethearts that hard-won hunk of ice for Christmas, so much the better.