I don’t like Christmas. Don’t call me Scrooge or a Grinch — I’m not advocating spoiling people’s holiday cheer. Maybe it’s Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), courtesy of shortened winter days, the proliferation of red and green as a color combo, or the stress of harassing family members for gift ideas (hey, sis-in-law, I’m still waiting for gift ideas), but I’m depressed during Christmas. I don’t want to eat my depression away with homemade Rolo cookies dipped in egg nog, while watching some crass studio-mandated holiday movie that extols the kindness of humanity once a year (what about the other 11 months?). I haven’t seen most of the beloved Christmas movies: A Christmas Story? Sorry, Ralphie. A Miracle on 34th Street? ‘Fraid not, small Natalie Wood. I did see Christmas Vacation once, a long time ago, unmoved by its sentiment or attempts at humor (Cousin Eddie notwithstanding). My beloved partner, Amanda, is my opposite in this regard: she loves Christmas. I must endure her enthusiasm for playing U2’s cover of Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” loudly and repeatedly while decorating our tree with British woodland-animal ornaments. She owns several Christmas movies, but the one that she requests we watch on an annual basis is Love Actually, a 2003 romantic comedy with interconnected storylines set during the Christmas season in London. Love Actually has long earned my ire for its devotion to treacly rom-com clichés and an unbearable 135 min. running time (director Richard Curtis should attend mandatory editing tutorial sessions with Judd Apatow). It’s also the movie that has that song, the one that earns Mariah Carey millions of extra dollars each Christmas season because people apparently can’t get enough of it; I can’t mention it by name, but you know the song. To be fair, Amanda acknowledges Love Actually’s shortcomings (she’s not generally interested in romantic comedies—she’d rather watch a Gaspar Noé or Lars von Trier film, or anything with new current obsession, Timothée Chalamet), but she really enjoys it; she’s filled with Christmas spirit. Cynical yours truly gnashes his teeth as soon as the title credits appear on screen (but to show I’m not a complete asshole, I did buy her the Blu-ray, replacing the previously-viewed, scratched-to-hell DVD she’s had since her video-store management days).
Richard Curtis gained fame and infamy as the screenwriter of popular ’90s/’00s romantic comedies Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999), and Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001), putting small British film-production company Working Title Films into Hollywood’s metaphorical Rolodex (you can thank Curtis for popularizing Hugh Grant’s prep-school stammering, which charmed some and irritated others). Not content to be a well-paid, but ignored screenwriter, Curtis stepped behind the camera for Love Actually, his ode to hetero-normative love, assembling a big cast of well-known British and American actors to tell a sprawling narrative that preaches to viewers that the world needs more love, Christmas, and British stereotypes.
Attempting a succinct plot synopsis for Love Actually is impossible, but I’ll make a valiant effort to sum things up without your eyes glazing over: during the weeks before Christmas, faded rock star Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) records a Christmas version of one of his old hits. Seeking relevance with contemporary youth, his brutal honesty in media interviews dismays his long-time manager; a recent widower (Liam Neeson) deals with his grief while bonding with his stepson, Sam (the Twist-iest Oliver Twist-looking Thomas Sangster), over his schoolboy crush; David (Hugh Grant), the newly-elected British Prime Minister, catches the eye of staffer Natalie; entrepreneur Harry (Alan Rickman) struggles with his fidelity to wife Karen (Emma Thompson), as his secretary, Mia, not-so-subtly eschews office-harassment rules; Sarah (Laura Linney), one of Harry’s employees, loves her dreamy co-worker, Karl, while dealing with her institutionalized older brother; Best Man Mark (Andrew Lincoln) videotapes his friend Peter’s wedding, focusing solely on bride Juliet (Keira Knightley); Jilted writer Jamie (Colin Firth) bonds with Portuguese housekeeper Aurélia while he writes his latest crime novel at his French cottage; porno film stand-ins John and Judy (Martin Freeman and Joanna Page, respectively) make small talk as they pantomime sexual positions; socially-awkward caterer Colin (Kris Marshall) tires of English birds, yearning for American sorority gals. Did I mention that this is a sprawling narrative?
Curtis stacks Love Actually with British heavyweights, and adds in a few well-known Americans for North American audiences (gotta keep Hollywood happy and maximize that box office!), but there are simply too many characters, and the movie drags on endlessly, mercilessly; it’s not revealed until near the end how all the characters are interconnected. Yes, the film’s London setting is picturesque—nobody celebrates Christmas quite like Britons—but a pretty palette can’t make up for an overstuffed narrative. There are several subplots that really should have been cut from the film. The quota of stammering, stuttering British stereotypes is already fulfilled, so Colin Firth’s segment is the first to go: the theme that love overcomes language barriers is painfully apparent as soon as Jamie and Aurélia meet–it’s a lazy device to connect two characters who don’t speak the same language to fall in love with each other as they struggle to communicate. By the end of their story, when Jamie is joined by half a Portuguese town, as uplifting orchestral music surges on clichéd cue, in order to propose to Aurélie, you’ll either be tearing up, or fighting the urge to throw something at the TV (or vomiting, if reverse peristalsis is your preferred method of response).
The Laura Linney subplot is also on my “cut” list: it could be my own bias, but I feel that Laura Linney is a psychic vampire, draining the energy out of every performer in every film scene she appears; she’s in a feeding frenzy in Love Actually. Her not-so-secret love for her office mate is another rom-com cliché, and the addition of a mentally-ill brother to stymie her chance at romantic love is clumsy and predictable: yes, even in the face of failure at romantic love, familial love at Christmas is all one needs.
Meant to be a slight breather from the more dramatic scenes, the “Caterer Colin” subplot is incredibly slight: Colin is a stereotypical British lad with bad teeth and awkward features who demonstrates how repulsive he truly is in his interactions with women, yet he’s rewarded by having a gaggle of Midwestern American ladies fawn over him because of his working-class English accent (Elisha Cuthbert isn’t even American). Yes, fellas, even if you’re having trouble scoring with the ladies because you’re an obnoxious asshole, just hop on a plane and go to a faraway country where the women will objectify you for your accent! Some would argue that the “Caterer Colin” segment is a play on rom-com conventions, but for a film that so embraces its genre clichés, I don’t buy it, even if Denise Richards shows up at the end of the film with a terrible Southern accent. The porno stand-in couple segment could also be removed, but then there’d be no nudity, and the Brits do enjoy a bit of cheek with their comedy.
It’s startling to watch Andrew Lincoln freshly-shaved and without a machete (quick: how many of you thought he was an American because of The Walking Dead?), but here he is, often adorned in baggy turtleneck sweaters, playing a sad, pathetic man whose secret unrequited love for his best mate’s new wife reaches the pinnacle of impropriety when he decides to show up to their home, serenading her with a Christmas carol while stealing from Bob Dylan’s cue cards in Don’t Look Back. What is often considered an iconic scene comes off as desperate and creepy, depending on your perspective. Once his elaborate stunt has been completed and he’s received a pity kiss from Keira Knightley, Mark trudges home, whispering “Enough. Enough now,” in case the audience didn’t understand the context of the scene. Perhaps it’s Curtis’s inexperience behind the camera, but he doesn’t trust the audience enough not to guide them by the hand in the film (the airport arrival scenes that bookend the film are cases in point).
The music in Love Actually drives me crazy—it’s bad enough that Curtis telegraphs many scenes, but his use of music is particularly egregious. As characters race to the film’s climax, the orchestral score is nearly deafening—for god’s sake, we get it, Richard! Film scores are supposed to compliment a film narrative, adding to a film’s tone, setting up mood for a viewer, but in Love Actually, the music is overly melodramatic and clichéd, the sort of orchestral music one finds in a generic romantic comedy; only the volume is cranked to 11 here. Every time I revisit the film and watch Sam racing down an airport terminal accompanied by the nauseatingly-sentimental score, I want to hurl profanities at the screen (I’m a very active viewer). It’s not just the score that telegraphs the action, there’s nefarious work to be found by a single woodwind instrument: a clarinet. This insidious instrument ruins many a scene: every time a character experiences an emotional moment, there’s that damn clarinet, intruding upon the scene, signposting melancholy, ripping the viewer out of the film. The next time you watch the film, play a drinking game: take a drink every time you hear the clarinet; or better yet, don’t—you’ll make yourself sick. You’re on notice, clarinet—you’re on my music shit list.
Lest you think me too harsh, there are some enjoyable aspects of Love Actually to experience. Liam Neeson is refreshing in a non-dramatic role that’s a few years before his makeover as an Action Star, Revenge Thriller Sub-Division™. Bill Nighy is a wonderful actor, and I wish I had an entire film featuring Billy Mack and his manager, but alas, I’m grateful for the scenes we’re given interspersed in the film. And Uncle Billy does play a pivotal role as a distraction to young Sam’s quest to declare his childhood love to a classmate, so he’s a rock ‘n’ roll Cupid.
Hugh Grant is the cool, hip prime minister, predating Justin Trudeau by a decade, and I’ll admit that his usual stammering isn’t as egregious here than in previous films. He gets a few good quips (referring to Margaret Thatcher’s portrait as a “saucy minx”—god, do I love British slang) and the surprise cameo of Billy Bob Thornton, as the visiting American President, is a welcome sight, even if he behaves quite unstatesmanlike, as he’s lecherous towards “chubby” Natalie (is that feeble running joke supposed to be a commentary on Hollywood body images?). It’s hard not to be won over by Grant’s charm, leftover from the enjoyable Nick Hornby adaptation About a Boy (2002). At a joint press conference, it’s immensely satisfying watching Grant’s PM admonish the American President for his bullying and arrogant behavior, while extoling the virtues of British culture (if only this would happen in real-life politics, cocktail parties notwithstanding)—American audiences might wrinkle their noses, but it’s refreshing to see America from a foreign perspective.
Love Actually is emblematic of the bothersome clichés found in romantic comedies, and it sorely needs some judicious editing. Richard Curtis deserves a lump of coal for his plodding direction and his distrust for audiences, but it’s not the worst example of the genre. Why do I sound like I’m changing my mind about the film? Maybe it’s the memories of snuggling with Amanda on the couch while we watch the film, maybe it’s Hugh Grant’s dancing PM, maybe it’s Bill Nighy’s Billy Mack prancing about in the nude with his guitar, but I’m not completely heartless. Scorn the plethora of Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Aniston romantic comedies if you must, but perhaps leave Love Actually out of the fray. It’s got its many issues, but hey, ‘tis the season for forgiveness. Joyeux noel, everyone!