There are Christmas movies that I love, there are some I find crude and unfunny, and others that are boring or sickly sweet. But there’s only one that I actually hate: “Love Actually.”
I hated this movie the moment I saw it in the theater 15 years ago and have nurtured that disregard ever since. But since I’m an open-minded person I recently gave it another shot to see if I had been wrong all these years. Nope.
“Love, Actually” is an ensemble piece featuring the cream of the English acting establishment (minus Maggie Smith for some reason. How she escaped is beyond me.) Set in upper-middle-class London the movie purports to illuminate the various aspects of love through nine case studies. Most of the characters are interrelated in some unexplained way that seems to revolve around an elementary school attended by everyone’s kids or the kids of their friends.
The movie is bracketed at the beginning and end with genuinely affecting scenes of people joyously reuniting at the airport: grandparents and grandchildren, friends, lovers, parents and children, spouses. Fair enough. That’s very touching. And because the movie is set during the four weeks leading up to Christmas, the movie purports to examine love through the prism of Christmas.
And yes, love is all around us at Christmas. Love for your fellow man. Love for your family. Love for your community. But “Love Actually” has the narrowest definition of love, emphasizing romantic love at the expense of all else. Of the nine stories, seven are about love between one male and one female and only two depict all the other kinds of love in the world (one is about love between old friends and the other depicts a sister lovingly caring for her brother.)
OK, sure. Romantic love sells tickets, but what the movie calls love is frequently just infatuation between people who barely know each other, including:
- Two strangers (Colin Firth and his Portuguese housekeeper) who don’t even speak a word of the same language
- An 11-year-old boy with a crush on a girl he’s never spoken to
- A bloke who’s so infatuated with his best friend’s new wife that he’s barely spoken to her
- The prime Minister of the UK, who is enamored by the woman who brings him tea and crumpets despite never having had a serious conversation in the two weeks she was waiting on him
- A guy who goes to America to pick up women in bars and apparently manages to snag one, although we are not shown how he accomplishes it
This bizarre definition of love is bad enough but here are six other things to which I object:
1. The elevation of puppy love to the highest echelons of human feeling
One of the main stories involves a school boy, Sam (now more famous as Jojen Reed in Game of Thrones!), who we meet at his mother’s funeral. His stepfather, Liam Neeson, is concerned that the boy is distraught, but in a surprise twist it turns out that the reason for Sam’s despondency is his crush on a classmate who is moving to America.
This is the moment when I actively began to despise this movie above all others. Losing your mother is about the worst tragedy that can befall a child and yet the movie completely blows off that loss. And Sam’s situation is definitely not a case where the kid is compensating for losing Mom by channeling his grief into another love object because he declares that he’s felt this way since “before Mom died.”
Throughout the movie Sam talks like a sophisticated, hyper-self-aware 45-year-old. About three weeks after the funeral, he asks Liam Neeson when he’s going to start dating again, which Neeson actually does after meeting another single mom (who happens to be Claudia Schiffer!) at the school’s Christmas pageant. I don’t know who this Mom/wife was but she must have been a cipher if she is so easily forgotten.
2. The insult to the United States
To the extent there’s a main story it revolves around the the new prime minister, the dorkishly cute Hugh Grant. Almost immediately after taking office he meets with the American president Billy Bob Thornton, a bully and a womanizer who hits on Natalie, the assistant that Hugh Grant himself covets. In his first cabinet meeting the PM tells his advisers he’s going to go along with whatever the president wants because the US is so powerful. But after catching Billy Bob making a pass at Natalie he grows a spine and dresses down President Predator in a press conference that causes everyone in the UK to beam with pride.
This episode is clearly wish fulfillment by the post-9/11 filmmakers. At the time the movie came out George W. Bush and Tony Blair were staunchly allied in fighting terrorism and there were some in the UK who just hated the alliance. The “Love, Actually” Hugh Grant is a PM that British leftists could only dream of, but rather than make a substantive political argument, the filmmakers load the deck by making the U.S. president personally repulsive. Thanks a lot Britain. You’re welcome for D-Day.
(And speaking of the film’s strange view of America, there’s also the story about Colin the Incel, who goes to America to get lucky. He walks into a bar and flashes his English accent and three gorgeous girls — including January Jones! — immediately fall for him. So that’s America for you — boorish men and loose women.)
3. Situations that would never happen in real life
The movie seems to take place in an alternative universe where people do things that would never happen in any world resembling reality.
There is, for example, the story involving a couple who meet as stand-ins during the filming of a porn movie. I’m not an expert but I don’t think pornos bother with the niceties of gaffers, best boys, and stand-ins. We’re supposed to believe that these otherwise completely normal lovebirds are unaffected by spending half their time together in nude simulated sex and can go on to have a completely average courtship despite having been naked together for hours on end.
Also unworldly is the example of the groovy Prime Minister dancing by himself in his first night in 10 Downing Street. The scene is funny, of course, but preposterous (and stolen from Ricky Business too.)
Or what are we to make of Colin Firth’s ability to learn Portuguese in two weeks? Coincidentally, this is also the same amount of time it takes 11-year-old Sam to become a great drummer.
And then there are the big dramatic scenes that would never happen in any sane world — like Sam breaching airport security and getting chased all the way to the gate where his plan is about to take off.
Or Colin Firth proposing to a woman he’s known for two weeks in front of an entire restaurant. Or an aging rock star telling his long-time manager, “You are the f***ing love of my life.” Or the prime minister sneaking backstage in a elementary school auditorium to lay a lip lock on one of his assistants?
And probably the most unbelievable development of all is that Alan Rickman’s slutty secretary manages to plan a great holiday office party in less that two weeks! What fantasyland is that?
4. The crudity
This is supposed to be a Christmas movie but it’s not something to which you could take your kids or mother. The script is littered with unnecessary F-bombs and nude scenes. We also have the moment when Sam high-fives Liam Neeson and exclaims “Let’s get the shit kicked out of us by love.” First of all, that is a sentence that no person, much less a child, has ever uttered, and secondly, I am uncomfortable knowing that some stage mother let her little boy say those words in a movie. I am also uncomfortable that a climatic scene revolves around a little girl suggestively singing and dancing to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas.”
What’s surprising about this is that none of the storylines culminate in anyone having actual sexual relations. Even the porn stand-ins make a point of telling people they haven’t had sex yet. So the movie is chastely crude, or crudely chaste. One or the other.
5. The overuse and abuse of the soundtrack
It’s hard to think of a movie that makes the soundtrack work harder at evoking the emotions that should evolve out of the character, plot, acting and directing. In many ordinary cheesy movies there’s a climax during the concluding moments that comes larded larded with orchestral swells and other uplifting music. The problem with “Love, Actually,” is that it is promiscuous with climaxes, all of which have suitable triumphant scores.
Consider this garbage scene, where Hugh Grant tells off the U.S. president in the first fifteen minutes of the movie. The background music is more appropriate for a “winning the 100-meter-dash in the Olympics” moment. (And while we’re at it, what kind of statesman makes an agreement in face-to-face meetings and then denounces it once he gets in front of the cameras.)
But it’s not only the score that is over-used. The movie also relies heavily on popular music to piggyback on our emotional connection to these songs. Who doesn’t viscerally respond to the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” Norah Jones’ “Turn Me On,” The Pointer Sisters’ “Jump,” or The Calling’s “Wherever You Will Go”? This is just cheap manipulation.
6. The movie’s bizarre understanding of employer/employee relationships
I know this movie was made before the #MeToo movement, but some of the employer/employee dynamics are weird even by 2003 standards. Many of the love relationships involve men and their employees: Prime Minister Hugh Grant and his lowly tea-bringer; the rock star Bill Nighy and his manager; Colin Firth and his non-English-speaking housekeeper. These power dynamics are bad.
Then there’s Alan Rickman, the head of some kind of agency, who, in addition to giving his secretary an expensive gift, actively encourages Laura Linney to make a pass at a co-worker. Aren’t companies supposed to discourage dating between co-workers? This sounds like an HR fiasco waiting to happen.
On the other hand, a few things do work
To give the movie its due, two storylines actually do have the ring of truth: the Alan Rickman/Emma Thompson marriage and Laura Linney’s relationship with her brother. These are heartbreaking and realistic depictions of the effort that needs to go into making mature love work.
The Laura Linney story is particularly poignant because her situation is so intractable and something that many people can relate to. Hardly anyone who has met a significant other as a stand-in on a pornographic movie but there are millions who feel stuck as the main caretaker for a disabled relative. I’m a little frustrated, however, that Laura and the object of her desire cannot have a serious conversation about her brother to see see if they can work something out, but this is far from the most objectionable part of the movie.
As for Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson, let’s skip over the fact that despite being the the Prime Minister’s sister and very posh, she sends her kids to the local public school, which has a distinctly lower-middle-class vibe. Putting that ridiculousness aside, their story is as old as the hills — the husband is beguiled by the young new secretary who’s coming on to him. As sexy as this Mia person is, why anyone would consider cheating on Emma Thompson is beyond me! Idiot!!
In any event, the moment when the wife discovers her husband is straying is genuinely sad. This is one time the filmmakers use background music appropriately to advance a legitimately earned emotion. When she plays “Both Sides Now,” as sung by a much older and world-wearier Joni Mitchell than the one who first recorded it in the 1960s, you feel the hurt and pain of an adult woman who’s really lived life and, frankly, deserves a lot better. This is a world-class scene trapped in a pile of dreck. So watch this clip alone for a shock of honesty and throw out the rest of the movie. That would be the best Christmas present you could give yourself.