My brother Eric left all of his movie collection to me. This included an unopened DVD of “the ultimate romantic comedy,” Love Actually. Now, I’m not much of a romantic comedy fan. But it was written and directed by Richard Curtis. You know him: the man who co-wrote every episode of Blackadder? Less impressively, he wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral — but still a solid film. So I had been wanting to see the film for some time. And last weekend, visiting my sister seemed like the perfect opportunity because it’s the kind of thing she would like.
What a mess of a film! I’m sure the screenplay looked like a recipe for gumbo. You know: just keep adding stuff until its done. It must have seemed like a great idea. Romantic comedies are incredibly predictable. So why not just throw together nine romantic plots of varying styles and voilà: soup’s ready! There’s just one problem with this analogy: soups work this way because the different ingredients combine synergistically. These nine plots were related in the most tenuous way. Not one of them made another better — or even different.
Love Actually: The Good
None of this would have been a problem if all the stories — or even most of them — worked. But that isn’t the case. Of the nine, I thought two of them worked — and brilliantly so.
Christmas Is All Around Us
The first was a bromance between aging rock star Billy Mack and his manager Joe. Bill Nighy plays the Mack character for all its cynical old-man comedy potential. And comedian Gregor Fisher plays straight-man to Nighy, adding the pathos to the story that makes it work. The story goes along with my theory that if you scratch a cynic, you will find a blubbering fool who cries a number of time during the course of films like Love Actually. (Not that I have anyone in mind!)
The Body Doubles
The second — and best — story was about John and Judy, played pitch perfect by Martin Freeman and Joanna Page. They are professional body doubles — people who stand in for actors while the technical issues (lighting, framing, camera movement) are worked out. It’s hard and thankless work. But they are working on a sex scene. In addition to often being naked, they are in some hilariously obscene positions. All through it, they chat, very much as if they were having coffee. Eventually, John asks Judy out on a date, and they are wonderfully awkward. But John literally jumps for joy after getting a meaningful but not terribly passionate kiss from Judy.
Love Actually: The Bad
Some of the stories were just bad.
The American President — But Even Worse
Hugh Grant plays a wholly unbelievable prime minister who falls in love with a young woman on his household staff, played by Martine McCutcheon. It features yet another twitchy Good Guy™ performance by Grant, which no sane person would want to sit through. But worse, the implausibility of the story and the characters ruin it. However, I did like that it showed that some men do like women with a bit more meat on their bones, even if McCutcheon probably only wears a size 8 — max.
The Universal Language: Cliche
A similarly insipid yet unbelievable story featured Colin Firth as a writer and Sienna Guillory as a housekeeper who only speaks Portugese. Love blossoms in the way that 13-year-olds think it does. As a viewer, I can see how they might make a fine match. But I don’t see how either of them could possibly know it. But what the hell: Firth is British and Guillory is beautiful! What else does a bad film need?
The Boy Who Wasn’t Arrested
There is also a horrible story concerning recently widowed Liam Neeson and his pre-pubescent son who is in love. If this sentimental claptrap wasn’t bad enough, it all turns into an action adventure that made the “single prime minister searches the streets for the housekeeper love of his life” plot seem like Schindler’s List.
Two for Keira
Of course, there had to be the cinematic equivalent of Jessie’s Girl. In this case, the girl is Keira Knightley, looking about 15 (I think she was 17 while filming). The story is entirely predictable, although the denouement was clever and sweet.
Richard Curtis’ Porn Fantasy
But without a doubt, the worst story was that of Colin (Kris Marshall) who runs off to America because all British women rightly think he’s a creepy idiot. Once in America, he finds himself in a porn fantasy where he goes to stay with four beautiful women (played by four models) who “will be naked.” At first, I couldn’t believe it. I thought surely this was a set-up to steal his money or sell him sex. But no. Apparently, Richard Curtis knows that Americans are keen on European accents. We aren’t that keen. But okay, I get it: broad comedy. Unfortunately, tonally, it simply doesn’t work with any other part of the film. Also: where’s the comedy except for, “American women are stupid, ha ha!”
Love Actually: The Ugly
There were two stories that almost worked. They were both dramas.
The Brother Calls
The first featured Laura Linney, desperately in love with Rodrigo Santoro. But here’s the catch: he’s desperately in love with her too! The problem: Linney has a schizophrenic brother (Michael Fitzgerald) who is in a mental institution. Unlike any mental institution I can imagine existing, this one allows the patients to wander around with cell phones and call whoever they want whenever they want. So Linney is constantly interrupted in her brief attempt to have a romance. She ultimately chooses her brother, and I can’t decide whether it is noble or cowardly. It might make a good feature drama. Certainly Richard Curtis is not the man to right it, though.
The Necklace and Joni Mitchell
The other drama was about Harry (Alan Rickman) and Karen (Emma Thompson). He has a very sexually aggressive secretary, Mia (Heike Makatsch). You know the story. What makes it more interesting is that I don’t believe Rickman ever has an affair. But it shows that the pain is not because of the act, but because of the feelings. This story has some of the best scenes in the entire movie. If it weren’t for Harry being such a complete idiot, it would have worked better.
Image this. Your wife tells you that she knows you find your secretary attractive. She tells you explicitly, “Be careful.” And you have at least a hunch that she caught you buying a gold necklace. In that case, you either give her the necklace or you buy another one and give her that. You absolutely don’t buy her a Joni Mitchell CD in the exact same sized box.
Love Always Is a Christmas Movie!
The whole film takes place in the lead-up to Christmas. I can’t help but feel that I’m supposed to forgive the film its many sins against intelligence, human emotion, and art because of this. But I didn’t walk away from the film feeling good. My main thought was, “Oh my God! Laura Linney is spending Christmas with her violent schizophrenic brother!” On the plus side, I’d do that before I’d watch Love Actually again.