I confess that it wasn’t until recently that I understood the degree to which Love Actually, the 2003 romantic comedy by writer/director Richard Curtis, had been gradually reevaluated and granted the status of a “classic” holiday film. For me, the news came by way of a November Vulture piece that began, “It might be hard to recall, but the film that has now become a beloved holiday classic was one that initially received a flurry of mixed reviews.”
My own review was among several cited. I’ve of course always known that my take on Love Actually was more unforgiving than most. But beloved holiday classic? Really?
Well yes, evidently. Over the course of several conversations with friends and colleagues, some of them conducted with good cheer but at high volume—I refer interested parties to the Twitter feeds of Atlantic employees on the afternoon of November 20th—it was confirmed to me that a considerable number of people not only consider Love Actually a classic, but go so far as to watch the movie annually as a holiday tradition.
Which is—and please believe that I am being as diplomatic as I can—utterly insane. Begin with the obvious: Love Actually is not, in fact, a holiday-season movie in any meaningful sense. Yes, it takes place in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and it features a Sisyphean parade of pop Yuletide ditties. But this is not a movie about peace on Earth and good will toward men (or, for that matter, about what toys Santa will be placing under the tree). Insofar as Love Actually conveys the spirit of any holiday, that holiday is Valentine’s Day—and, indeed, the film served as a model for a few ensemble romantic comedies (He’s Just Not That Into You, Valentine’s Day) that have since been associated with that date.
So take the film on its own titular terms. What does Love Actually tell us about love, actually? Well, I think it tells us a number of things, most of them wrong and a few of them appalling. Now, anyone who goes to the cineplex with any regularity knows that the last decade has seen more than its share of bad romantic comedies. But Love Actually is exceptional in that it is not merely, like so many other entries in the genre, unromantic. Rather, it is emphatically, almost shockingly, anti-romantic.
I first made this case in my original review almost a decade ago, and those who want to get a sense of where I’m headed are welcome to have a look. But in light of the film’s 10th anniversary, I wanted to delve a little deeper. So I watched Love Actually again, and—to my surprise—I found it even more hostile to the concept of romance than I’d remembered.
For those in need of a plot refresher, the movie portrays, by my count, nine principal relationships: between the British Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) and a young member of his household staff (Martine McCutcheon); between a crime novelist (Colin Firth) and his Portuguese maid (Lúcia Moniz); between a graphic designer (Laura Linney) and the colleague (Rodrigo Santoro) on whom she’s had a longstanding crush; between a husband (Alan Rickman) and wife (Emma Thompson) stuck in a state of marital ennui; between a widower (Liam Neeson) and his lovesick stepson (Thomas Brodie-Sangster); between a new bride (Keira Knightley) and her husband’s best friend (Andrew Lincoln); between an aging rocker (Bill Nighy) and his manager (Gregor Fisher); between two body doubles (Martin Freeman and Joanna Page) simulating sex acts on a movie set; and between a blundering British lothario (Kris Marshall) and an escalatingly implausible series of American dream girls. There are other subsidiary relationships, but they serve primarily as foils (Rickman’s sexually predatory assistant; Linney’s needy, institutionalized brother), or to tie the major subplots together.
Let’s begin by stating the obvious: It’s a tremendous cast. (Chiwetel Ejiofor is even tucked in there somewhere.) And a few of the subplots, I will grant, work pretty well, in particular—and no, I don’t think this a coincidence—the nonromantic ones. Neeson and Brodie-Sangster (who was destined for subsequent greatness as the voice of Ferb and as Jojen Reed on Game of Thrones) are touching as the boys trying to put their lives back together after the death of their beloved wife/mom. And Nighy is, as always, a delight. (In my repressive society, every movie produced would be required to provide a role for Bill Nighy.) I will point out, though, that the latter plot—in which Nighy campaigns to get his crass Christmas hit to the top of the pop charts—doesn’t really have anything to do with his platonic “love” for his manager, an idea that is pretty clearly tacked on at the end to make that story fit the film’s larger framework.
Of the movie’s seven romantic plotlines, too, I think one is rather endearing. Having Martin Freeman and Joanna Page discover they're attracted to one another in the midst of pretty much the least romantic activity possible—being ordered into a variety of rushed, pseudo-erotic poses on a movie set—is a clever conceit, and tidily executed.
As for the rest of the film—which is to say, the bulk of the film—I think it offers up at least three disturbing lessons about love. First, that love is overwhelmingly a product of physical attraction and requires virtually no verbal communication or intellectual/emotional affinity of any kind. Second, that the principal barrier to consummating a relationship is mustering the nerve to say “I love you”—preferably with some grand gesture—and that once you manage that, you’re basically on the fast track to nuptial bliss. And third, that any actual obstacle to romantic fulfillment, however surmountable, is not worth the effort it would require to overcome.
Begin with the elevation of physical attraction over any of the other factors typically associated with romantic compatibility: similar likes and dislikes, overlapping senses of humor, shared values, what have you. Grant falls in love with McCutcheon the first time he speaks with her—“Get a grip,” he chides himself moments afterward—when essentially the only thing he knows about her is that she accidentally uses profanity a lot. (Charming? Sure. Evidence of a soul mate? Unlikely.) Firth and Moniz, meanwhile, fall in love despite not sharing a word of language in common. Moreover, the movie telegraphs very clearly that the moment when Firth really falls for Moniz is when he watches her strip down to her underwear.
The pattern is repeated throughout the film. Brodie-Sangster is in love with a beautiful, popular girl at school with whom he’s never spoken. Neeson recognizes that a ray of sunshine may enter his entombed love life the instant he meets a mom who looks exactly like (i.e., is played by) Claudia Schiffer. We can assume, I suppose, that Linney and Santoro have had some conversations—they do work in the same office, after all—but the film doesn’t bother to show them having any. All we know about him is that she thinks he’s “too good for her” and, later, that he has washboard abs. The storyline regarding Marshall’s quest for American babes is played as a gag, of course: dorky British guy is convinced that his accent will prove irresistible to super-hotties in Wisconsin—and, lo and behold, he’s right! But the plotline’s comically exaggerated infatuation with physical attraction is actually not very far out of keeping with the rest of the film.
Creepiest of all is the storyline involving Lincoln and Knightley. Why is he so desperately in love with his best friend’s bride? Well, it’s not the result of any conversation they’ve had or experience they’ve shared, because the movie is at pains to note that he’s barely spoken to her and he goes out of his way to avoid her company. Indeed, the video tribute to her bridal radiance that he records at her wedding makes pretty clear what it is about her that so captivates him. (Hint: not her mind.) And he, too, like Neeson, ultimately suggests that the only way he will ever get over this love of his life is by hooking up with a supermodel. I’m barely scratching the surface of what’s wrong with this subplot—the movie’s worst—which somehow manages to present the idea that it’s romantic to go behind a friend’s back to ostentatiously declare your everlasting love for his wife. But let’s not get off track.
This is the point at which defenders of the film will reply, reasonably enough: So what? In movies beautiful people always fall in love with other beautiful people! What’s wrong with love at first sight, anyway? Which are both fair responses, as far as they go. But Love Actually is a considerable outlier among romantic comedies in its rigorous conviction not only that people fall in love without really knowing one another, but that they don’t even need to learn anything about each other to confirm their initial attraction.
This is not some abstruse or esoteric component of high-end cinema. The core of most romantic comedies—the core, for that matter, of most romantic comedies written and/or directed by Richard Curtis—is one form or another of mutual exploration between potential lovers. Some movies do it well and some do it poorly, but almost all at least make an effort to do it. The protagonists bicker their way into love (27 Dresses, Sweet Home Alabama, Something's Gotta Give ...). The guy gradually persuades the gal that he’s worthy, or vice versa (Groundhog Day, Knocked Up, Working Girl ...). One helps the other overcome a foolish obsession with a Mr. (or Mrs.) Wrong (The Wedding Singer, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, While You Were Sleeping ...). The free spirit teaches the control freak to let go and embrace life (Along Came Polly, Pretty Woman, The Ugly Truth ...). Opposites discover that they are attracted (Two Weeks Notice, Notting Hill, Maid in Manhattan ...). Etc., etc. My point is in no way to suggest that these are all good movies. (They’re emphatically not.) Rather it is to point out just how far outside the ordinary it is that none of Love Actually’s fated couples spends any meaningful time getting to know one another at all.
Which brings us to the movie’s second, related message. As I wrote in my original review:
The primary hindrance to romantic fulfillment is merely the fear of declaring one's love. As soon as the characters in the film find the courage to say "I love you," their romantic journeys are essentially over and they go straight to the happily-ever-afters. The idea that there could be any consequences or complications associated with, say, the prime minister of England shacking up with a domestic staffer half his age, or with a cosmopolitan English writer wedding a provincial Portuguese domestic with whom he has not shared a word of common language are of no concern to Love Actually. The word is the deed: By speaking love, the characters realize it.
Again, this is where the film consistently skips a step, jumping from initial attraction to romantic culmination without bothering with all that boring stuff about, you know, actually falling in love. It’s like jumping from the first scene of When Harry Met Sally (or, again, almost any other romantic comedy you could name) straight to the last.
Firth doesn’t learn Portuguese so that he can get to know Moniz better; he learns it in order to propose marriage. Grant smooches McCutcheon onstage at a children’s play before he’s so much as bought her a cup of coffee. The girl of Brodie-Sangster’s dreams is instantly won over by his last-minute dash at Heathrow, despite the fact that they’ve never spoken before: All she knows about him is that he plays the drums (poorly) and that he has very little respect for airport security. The idea that any of these romances could prove at all complicated is never entertained. It’s love! What could possibly go wrong?
Which brings me to the film’s final message, which is, essentially: If something, God forbid, does go wrong—well, you’re screwed. It’s probably best if you give up on love altogether and get on with the rest of your life. This message is transmitted via the two storylines that do not culminate happily: the Linney-Santoro fling and the strained marriage of Rickman and Thompson. After pining interminably for Santoro, Linney finally gets her big opportunity after an office party, luring him back to her apartment to have sex. (Again, the idea that they might actually talk first—perhaps over a glass of wine?—is foreign to the movie’s whole conception of how love progresses.) Alas, their amorous coupling is interrupted by a phone call from her institutionalized brother, and then a second. Clearly, it’s hopeless—and not merely this particular date, but the relationship altogether. The idea of trying again another night is not even entertained. It’s not as though she’s caring for her disabled brother full-time: He’s in a state facility! His phone calls to her can’t be that great an inconvenience. (They do not, for example, prevent her from holding down a regular job.) But by the molehills-to-mountains calculus of Love Actually, Linney appears doomed to an early spinsterhood.
Lastly, there’s the still-more-depressing moral of the Rickman-Thompson marriage. From the start, they seem like a solid enough couple. Sure, a little of the pizazz may have gone out of the relationship, but they seem perfectly happy and affectionate. Then along comes Rickman’s sexually voracious assistant with her oft-repeated invitations that he get to know her better. In a moment of weakness, he buys her an expensive heart-shaped pendant. Thompson figures out what her husband has done and confronts him, in by far the movie’s most powerful scene—a scene, really, that seems to have wandered in from another movie altogether: “Imagine your husband bought a gold necklace and, come Christmas, gave it to someone else," she tells him. "Would you stay, knowing life would always be a little bit worse?”
Is Thompson right to be furious? Of course she is! Her husband has betrayed her trust. That said, Rickman’s infidelity was limited to buying his assistant an inappropriate gift. He hasn’t slept with her or even kissed her, to the best of our knowledge. (He’s certainly not in love with her.) Plenty of married couples manage to overcome breaches far more severe than this one. Perhaps Rickman can win back Thompson’s faith. Perhaps she can forgive his middle-aged indiscretion. Perhaps the experience will help them recall all the reasons they fell in love in the first place. Perhaps, or perhaps not: Remarkably, Love Actually can’t be bothered to tell us how this relationship—easily the most credible and fully realized of the film—turns out.
We see Rickman and Thompson only once more, exchanging bland endearments at the closing scene at Heathrow. I have talked to fans of the movie who read this exchange as evidence of a reconciliation, and I’ve talked to others who believe it shows that the marriage is essentially dead. I think either reading—and pretty much any in between—is plausible. What we do know is what the movie doesn’t show, which is any scenes of Rickman or Thompson trying to keep the marriage alive. Because that would almost certainly entail some work: They’d have to talk to each other, and sort through their feelings, and assess whether they can still make one another happy—all that stuff that’s hard to fit on cue cards or memorize in Portuguese.
There are plenty of other aspects of Love Actually with which one might reasonably take issue: the frequent references to how much women weigh, the recurring motif of men wooing their much-younger subordinates, the movie’s peculiar conviction that weddings and funerals ought to be livened up by (respectively) the Beatles and the Bay City Rollers, and so on.
But those are quibbles. The fundamental problem with Love Actually is that it presents romance as either absurdly easy—something that strikes you like a thunderclap and requires only a single grand gesture in order to be fulfilled—or all but impossible. Notably absent is the idea that love might ever be worth a little sustained effort: some mutual exploration and discovery, a bit of care and nurture, maybe even the overcoming of an obstacle or two. Indeed, it’s hard to shake the sense that what is “classic” about Love Actually is not that it shows us anything about how people fall in love, but that it so conspicuously declines even to try.