I’m one of the insane who watches Love Actually every year around Christmastime. Richard Curtis’ 10-year-old flick has lost none of its charm on repeat viewings, the laughs all still land and it makes a hell of a double feature with Die Hard. So naturally I think Christopher Orr is dead wrong about it.
Up until four days ago, I had no idea there were people that hated the ensemble romantic comedy. In the grand sense that not everything is for everyone, sure, of course there were going to be people that didn’t care for it, but my eyes were opened to just how deep the irritation goes when Orr lambasted it as the least romantic movie of all time. I’m assuming Saw and Ichi the Killer weren’t up for consideration, but even strictly within the genre (and ignoring the trolling headline of the piece), it’s a pretty outrageous claim. It’s backed up by Orr’s typical flourish and intellect, but it’s a rare case where he seems to be wandering around a large amount of trees wondering where the power plant is.
As it turns out, Love Actually needs a defense.
Jumping Into the Ocean
Orr’s central issue is that the film is uninterested in showing the work of love. Everything is on the surface. Everything is based on looks. Eternal happiness is either incredibly simple or impossibly difficult. He also acknowledges that the hurdle in most everyone’s way is the act of professing your love.
That’s a pretty big challenge on its own (because love, and specifically admitting love, changes things), but the characters aren’t facing an Aw-Shucks, dirt-kicking kind of bashfulness (except for one). Most are facing an internal struggle against what they perceive to be walls blocking their path to happiness, and the lesson of most of the vignettes is that those walls are imaginary.
For The Prime Minister (Hugh Grant), it’s the problem of being attracted to a subordinate; for Sarah (Laura Linney), it’s self-doubt and a deep family commitment that keep her from chasing her work crush; for Mark (Andrew Lincoln), it’s that the woman he’s fallen for is his best friend’s bride; for John (Martin Freeman), it’s getting over his Aw-Shucks bashfulness to ask the woman he’s simulating sex with out for tea; for Harry (Alan Rickman), it’s an aggressively horny temptation pulling him from a concrete marriage to Karen (Emma Thompson); for Jamie (Colin Firth), it’s the sting of being cheated on and the inability to speak Portuguese.
Are all of these problems profound? No. Are some of them played (hilariously) for laughs? Yes. Are all of them real obstacles to professing your attraction (or maintaining your fidelity)? Absolutely.
The movie shows love as an antidote to normal life. It isn’t merely the magnetism of bursting hormones; it’s about finding a drastic and significant change to what’s going on currently, whether that means moving 5,000 miles away from home, learning a new language, jumping into a freezing lake to save someone else’s writing, being appallingly blunt as anti-promotion for your shitty Christmas song, or altering your country’s foreign policy in response to bullying sexual harassment. It’s about taking the plunge. In the case of Daniel (Liam Neeson) and his young step-son Sam (Thomas Sangster), it’s a matter of being shoved into the ocean by losing a wife and mother to prolonged illness. In every case, though, the person is searching for something, and they find it in another person.
That’s an overwhelming idea that’s explored in pretty much all romantic comedies, and Curtis delivers several doses of the distilled version to great effect, but the relationships aren’t purely about physicality.
For author Jamie and Aurelia (Lucia Moniz), the initial car ride attraction is silly and mild, but she shows her hand by diving into the lake to save the work that she let the wind carry away. Admittedly the camera lingers eye-rollingly too long on her body, but the moment places her in a new light in more ways than just the physical. Then, through dramatic irony, we get to see how truly compatible Aurelia and Jamie are even if they can only feel it. But in all of the successful relationships of the film, the coupling is ignited when someone proves — through action — that they care.
For The Prime Minister and Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), the push beyond initial attraction comes when he asks about her life, she explains that she’s newly single from a terrible boyfriend and he jokes that he could easily have the ex killed. He’s drawn to her as a counterpoint to the proper people around him when she curses egregiously during their meeting, he expresses clearly his flirtation, and he’s cooked. Destined to push her away to protect himself or crash into her full speed.
Speaking of which, the film also does a tremendous job of weaving each story into the others beyond simply playing “Christmas Is All Around” on radios and TVs near the other love birds. The entire ensemble is effectively an extended circle of friends of friends (who would be surprised by how low their Bacon Number to the Prime Minister is), but there’s also a matter of thematically tying moments together.
The best example is the juxtaposition of the wedding video and the Prime Minister’s problem. When Juliet (Keira Knightley) figures out that Mark’s wedding footage is singularly focused on her, she puzzles out his affection, and he explains that his coldness toward her was always a self-preservation tool. That scene is directly followed by a parallel in the Prime Minister asking for Natalie to be reassigned to spare him the agony of seeing the woman he likes (but believes he can’t have) every day.
Then there’s Harry convincing Sarah to take the plunge while essentially advising his adultery-minded self to do the same, several characters dancing/jumping off stairs/seizing in response to their love-based joy, the airport elements and more.
The script is labyrinthine, and the amount of stories limits how much of the growth we get to see, but almost every case involves a developing friendship that — when someone utters the L-word finally — turns into something more. That includes the non-romantic elements as well, particularly Daniel who exclaims early on that the distance created by his status as step-father has been brought into stunning focus after his wife’s death. She was the one who dealt with their son Sam’s problems, so now Daniel has to learn to swim quickly. Yet again, theirs is relationship that blossoms when one of them opens up about being in love — Daniel is able to bond with Sam’s schoolboy crush on the most popular girl in school.
We don’t know a lot about the characters, no, but what makes the movie work where its unintentional offspring Valentine’s Day — a movie truly worthy of bile –fails is that the writing is tight enough to paint each relationship in watercolors. There’s absolutely a physical element (these are beautiful professional actors we’re dealing with), but everyone is also witty and well-spoken, interesting and engaging. Beyond the sexual chemistry, it’s easy to see why these people are attractive. The script shapes a cast of genuinely decent people showing their best qualities and embarrassing themselves thoroughly.
The writing is also wickedly smart on the comedy front, finding a balance between easy pathos and bone-dry absurdity (“There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?”). Without that avalanche of excellent lines, it’s easy to see how the movie would be a crass cash-in on easy romance.
In a way, I’ve always thought of the movie as extending the Meet Cute, and I’ll admit there’s a kind of magic trick involved with that. Curtis doesn’t fill in the blanks or show couples doing the hard work of the relationship, but every character is written as instantly engaging, and every actor pulls focus so strongly that it’s easy to forget that there was nothing in the hat right before the rabbit popped out.