Well, it’s not exactly an expat movie, although various characters do travel to and stay in other countries. But it’s a sweet Christmas-time romantic comedy, so I thought it worthy of a review at this sentimental time of year. It also features an unusual character – the Home Exchange website, a great place to arrange for low-cost living arrangements in another country.
The film was written and Directed by Nancy Meyers, and stars Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Jack Black and Jude Law. It’s about love – unabashedly and with a great many words of dialog. It’s also about opening up to change, in this case geographic change leading to important internal growh.
Iris Simpkins (Kate Winslet), a young British journalist, treasures an unrequited passion for co-worker Jasper Bloom (Rufus Sewell). Amanda Woods, movie trailer editor extraordinaire, has just broken up with her live-in boyfriend Ethan.
Scene: The newspaper’s company Christmas party. “And then, there’s another kind of love: the cruelest kind. The one that almost kills its victims. It’s called unrequited love. Of that I am an expert,” says Iris. “You know,” Iris’ friend remarks, “I’ve just noticed how pathetic you are.”
Suddenly, Jasper’s engagement to Sarah Smith-Alcott (Circulation, 19th floor) is announced. Iris leaves, and dissolves into floods of tears upon reaching the safety of her home, a darling little cottage in Surrey.
Cut to LA, where movie trailer editor Amanda Woods (Cameron Diaz) is throwing shoes at cheating boyfriend Ethan and throwing him out. No tears here! Amanda hasn’t cried since she was 15 years old. Instead, Amanda decides to go away by herself over Christmas. She searches the internet and finds the Home Exchange website. Amanda likes the looks of the little Surrey cottage and impulsively sends a message of interest.
Amanda and Iris exchange instant messages. “Where are you?” Iris asks, adding “Please say somewhere far away.” Amanda has one question for Iris: are there any men in your town? “Zero,” Iris answers. They agree to trade houses – the next day!
The huge differences in their styles of living are immediately apparent: on the airplane, Iris is squashed between two oversized, middle-aged ladies in coach, while Amanda stretches out in her chair-cum-bed in First Class, a stack of books on the table next to her and a pink-striped mask protecting her eyes from the light.
On arrival, Iris finds warm temperatures, verdant growth, colorful bougainvillea cascading over high walls, beautiful large homes, and the blue Pacific Ocean. Amanda faces snow, cold, and a lane so narrow the driver won’t attempt it so she has to hike, with her oversized suitcase, to the cottage.
Iris dances with excitement when she discovers the swimming pool, restaurant-sized kitchen, media room with an enormous flat-screen TV (as well as a terrifying amount of equipment and thousands of DVDs), an exercise room, an in-home movie-editing studio, and a bedroom with curtains that create a blackout with the touch of a button.
Amanda is so bored after six hours at the charming cottage that she plans to return to LA the next day.
Iris befriends Arthur Abbot (Eli Wallach), Amanda’s elderly neighbor. Graham Simpkins (Jude Law), Iris’ brother, shows up at the cottage at 1 AM on Amanda’s first night, after a long session at the pub. He’s insanely good looking, somewhat drunk, and very surprised to see Amanda instead of Iris.
Amanda explains that they’ve switched houses for two weeks, and Graham asks, “People actually do that?” “Apparently,” Amanda replies.
Graham asks how it’s going for her, and she tells him she is leaving on the noon plane. “I came here on a stupid whim,” she states.
“Honestly, I’ve never thought about anything less. It’s very unlike me. . . I didn’t want to be alone over the holidays, and I guess I thought that, if I were somewhere else, I wouldn’t realize that I was alone but then I got here and I’ve never felt more alone in my life.”
Graham ends up spending the night, and the next morning Amanda arrives at Heathrow for the flight home.
Meanwhile, Iris has spent a restful night alone, and wakes up to bright sunshine (once she remembers to flick the switch to open the blackout curtains.) Arthur Abbott, former Hollywood screenwriter, introduces her to the Hollywood of bygone times through his anecdotes and movie recommendations (all starring strong women with gumption). Arthur asks why she came to LA for Christmas, and Iris admits she is trying to get away from an ex-boyfriend who just got engaged. “So he’s a schmuck,” Arthur announces calmly. Arthur explains,
“In the movies, we have leading ladies and we have the best friend. You, I can tell, are a leading lady. But for some reason you’re behaving like the best friend.”
“You’re so right,” Iris replies. “You’re supposed to be the leading lady of your own life, for God’s sake.”
Miles, a young movie music composer, and Iris become friends as well.
After several romantic interludes, Amanda discovers that Graham is not the footloose bachelor she thought, but a widower with two young daughters. Their situation suddently goes way beyond complicated. Graham tries to explain:
“Until I get to know somebody really well, it’s easier for me to be a normal, single guy because it’s way too complicated for me to be who I really am. . . . I have no idea how to date and be this.”
On Christmas Eve, Iris and Miles are in the video store together (with a cameo by Dustin Hoffman as himself) when Miles sees his actress girlfriend Maggie, who was supposed to be on location in New Mexico, walk by clutching another man. He rushes outside and confronts her, returning dejected. Back at the house, Iris tries to console him and describes her own situation with Jasper. Iris tells Miles:
“And after all that, you’ll go somewhere new and you’ll meet people who’ll make you feel worthwhile again. And little pieces of your soul will finally come back. And all those years of your life that you wasted, that will eventually begin to fade.”
Graham and Amanda try to figure out whether they can maintain their relationship long distance. Miles and Iris are lunching when he gets a phone call from Maggie and rushes off.
Jasper shows up unexpectedly in LA, looking for Iris’ editing help on a book he’s writing. “I don’t want to lose you, babe,” he tells Iris. Jasper suggests they sneak off to Venice together after she comes back to London.
“Are you free to do that?” she asks him. “Are you not with Sarah any more? Is that what you’ve come here to tell me?”
“I wish you could just accept knowing how confused I am about all this,” Jasper responds.
“Ok, let me just translate that. So, you are still engaged to be married.”
“Yes, but. . .”
Iris explodes at him.
“But you waltzing in here on my lovely Christmas holiday and telling me that you don’t want to lose me whilst you’re about to get married somehow newly entitles me to say ‘it’s over.’ This twisted, toxic thing between us is finally finished! I’ve got a life to start living! And you’re not going to be in it. Now, I’ve got somewhere really important to be, and you have got to get the hell out.”
Iris shoves Jasper out the door and slams it in his face. Later that evening, Miles tells her he’s through with Maggie, and asks what Iris is doing for New Year’s Eve. “I’ll be back in England by New Year’s Eve,” she responds. “I’ve never been to England,” Miles tells her. “If I go over there, will you go out with me New Year’s Eve?” “Love to.”
Meanwhile, Amanda and Graham have a serious parting. As she leaves the village in the back seat of the hired car, her eyes fill with tears. She orders the driver to turn around, and rushes back to the cottage where Graham meets her, red-eyed. “Why would I ever leave before New Year’s Eve?” she asks. “That makes no sense at all!” “ I have the girls New Year’s Eve,” he tells her. “Sounds perfect” Amanda responds.
They all gather for a New Year’s Eve party at Graham’s house with Iris, Miles, Graham, Amanda and the little girls, Phoebe and Olivia.
Will Amanda exchange the verdant abundance of her LA lifestyle to stay in England with Graham? Will Miles decide to experience London and Europe a while longer? Will Iris go back to LA with Miles? Or will their holiday become just another holiday, another blip in their “normal” lives?
I don’t know the answer, but I’m pretty sure that Iris will move forward with self confidence and gumption, and Amanda will have a more open heart as a result of their willingness to try on each other’s lives for a brief time.