Love Actually: Still Awful

A critic responds to his critics, and unpacks the worst scene in the movie

Does the world need 3,000 more words about Love Actually? Obviously not. Does it need 3,000 more words about anything? And yet, there’s the Internet, just sitting there, waiting to be filled. So with full awareness that I am becoming a living embodiment of this classic cartoon, I plunge once more (and, yes, rest assured, just once more) unto the breach …

When I argued last week that Love Actually was not merely unromantic, but actively anti-romantic, my editors assured me the piece would hit a vein, and it has. But I assumed that responses to it would run somewhere on the order of 10-1, or perhaps 100-1, against my thesis. To my surprise, it turns out there are a great many non-admirers of the film out there, perhaps even an until-now silent majority. Which is tremendously gratifying. I’m fine with the piece being hated by lovers of Love Actually—it’s natural!—but it’s nicer still to see it loved by haters of Love Actually.

That said, on to some critiques of the article, which have for the most part been generous, thoughtful, and even wise. These accomplishments are all the more impressive given that the critiques in question are, inevitably, wrong.

(If it’s not already evident, this is probably not a piece you want to read unless you have a general familiarity with Love Actually and have read some combination of my original piece and the responses to it by Emma Green, Alyssa Rosenberg, and Ben Dreyfuss. Also, be forewarned that this may take a while.)

I think there are two flaws common to many of the defenses of Love Actually I’ve seen in comments, on Twitter, and elsewhere on the web. The first is attempting to defend each subplot on an individual basis. I agree that (with one notable exception) any given storyline is perfectly defensible on its own merits. The problem, rather, is the patterns that emerge when you consider the film as a whole. One subplot about an older man wooing a much-younger subordinate? Fine. But three? And on it goes: not one, but two gags (three, if you count the Colin subplot) about how the only possible way a man could overcome heartbreak is with the assistance of one or more supermodels; two storylines in which women (never men) see their romantic lives shattered by obstacles that ought to be surmountable; and, most important, upwards of half a dozen subplots in which characters go directly from initial physical infatuation to (presumed) happily-ever-afters, without remotely bothering to get to know one another in between. These repeated themes are not coincidental.

The second mistake is trying to defend the Keira Knightley storyline, which is flat-out indefensible. Cut it loose, Love Actually fans! It’s an anchor that can only bring you down with it. (More on this later.)

As for particular responses to the piece, let’s begin where the whole affair originated, in a dispute with my colleague Emma Green. The title of her excellent reply is “I Will Not Be Ashamed of Loving Love Actually.” Nor should she be! Who among us has not at one time or another fallen for the wrong person (or movie)? The heart wants what it wants…

Green cunningly enlists C.S. Lewis to her cause (quite literally over his dead body), using his book The Four Loves to make the case that Love Actually is not merely a film about romance, but about the varied forms of love: eros, yes, but affection and friendship as well. (She rightly notes that the fourth love, charity, really doesn’t enter into it at all.)

This is, of course, very much the way the film pitches itself. “Love is everywhere,” explains Hugh Grant’s opening voiceover. “Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends.” Whether or not you find this monologue as painful as I do (I can’t even bring myself to quote the line from which the movie’s title is pilfered), it’s a wildly inaccurate advertisement for the film that follows. Just look at the scoreboard. Fathers and sons: one subplot. Mothers and daughters: a tiny fraction of a subplot (first lobster!). Husbands and wives: one subplot. Old friends: one subplot. Boyfriends/girlfriends (or would-be boyfriends/girlfriends): depending on your count, anywhere from four to eight subplots, constituting a substantial majority of the movie’s running time. It’s true that if you check out deleted scenes from the film, you’ll find that some other non-romantic bits were left on the cutting room floor. But you go to war with the movie you have, not the movie Hugh Grant pretends you have. (The movie’s tagline—“The Ultimate Romantic Comedy”—is more honest.)

Likewise, I can’t help but think Green is straining a bit when she squeezes the movie’s storylines into her own Lewis-inspired categories of affection, friendship, and eros. I’ll happily grant that the Neeson/Brodie-Sangster relationship falls under the rubric of “affection,” and that placing the Rickman/Thompson marriage in there as well (to its detriment) is a clever and entirely reasonable choice.

Putting Linney’s subplot in the category, however, is a rather trickier proposition. I’ve seen a number of folks argue that her storyline is not really about her tragic inability to have a relationship with the co-worker she adores, but rather about her love for her institutionalized brother. And obviously it is to some degree about both. But again, if you look at what writer/director Richard Curtis bothered to put on screen, it’s a whole lot of romantic frustration and less than five minutes of Linney interacting with her brother in any way, phone calls included. Yes, for Linney affection has “displaced” eros. But the movie’s overwhelming emphasis is on the latter, not the former.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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