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Entries in Love Actually [2003] (1)


Love Actually (2003)

All Around, A Great Movie

I’d like to take a moment to apologize for my review of Going the Distance.  I still think it’s a piece of shit, but the review itself isn’t my finest piece of writing—not even close.  I wrote the whole thing with a low-hung head, achy shoulders, and a clenched knot in my chest, knowing that I had to write about the film, but realizing it was not worth discussing at length (hence my weird aside about Justin Long’s body and the ranting fragments of a thesis).  Writing that felt like drowning; posting it was like making a snuff film of my own death.

Luckily, I watched Love Actually the next day, for what must've been the tenth time.  Richard Curtis’s quintessential rom-dramedy has become a Christmas tradition in the Simmons home.  It not only holds up as a funny and moving ode to love, but also as a fine celebration of the holiday season.

Stop!  I can sense some of you reaching for the “Back” button.  If you haven’t seen Love Actually, you’re right to be wary of my praising a Hugh Grant movie as being great.  I was dragged to the theatre in 2003, still smarting from the one-two punch of Bridget Jones’s Diary and Two Weeks Notice (I wasn’t crazy about About a Boy, either, but that film was at least buoyed by Nick Hornby’s writing).  I came out of the screening elated, and if you’ll bear with me, I’ll try to convince you to give this movie a shot.

Love Actually begins five weeks before Christmas, and tells the story of eight couples living in London.  Everyone’s connected, but not in ways that are too obvious or cute—until the very end; more on that later.  We meet over-the-hill rock star Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) who’s on a mission to out-sell a boy band with his Christmas-themed butchering of “Love is All Around”; Mack becomes the idol of grade-schooler Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sanger), who wants to become a musician to impress the cute American girl in his class—and get over the death of his mother; Sam’s dad, Daniel (Liam Neeson), wrestles with grief and struggles to bond with his stepson, and he confides in his friend, Karen (Emma Thompson), whose own marriage is in trouble due to her husband Harry’s (Alan Rickman) wandering eye; Karen’s older brother, David (Hugh Grant), is the new Prime Minister who’s got a crush on his caterer, Natalie (Martine McCutcheon).  This is about a quarter of the narrative spider-web; I haven’t even mentioned Keira Knightley, Colin Firth, Andrew Lincoln or Laura Linney’s characters, or the dozen others who fill out the cast.

What’s great about packing the film with so many little stories, especially ones that are handled as deftly as Curtis’s, is that we drop in and out of these greatly varied situations before any of them becomes stale.  It helps that the screenplay is full of surprises, both in story developments and the characters’ motivations.  This is a movie for adults that deals with office politics and global politics (Billy Bob Thornton pops up as a George W. Bush-type U.S. president, and his oily performance gets Curtis’s agenda across without relying on caricature); it also charts all the different stages of relationships, from getting-to-know-you chit-chat to the big questions about where a couple goes after their marriage is nearly ruined.

Sure, there are moments of silliness that reminded me of lesser rom-coms, such as Laura Linney’s character dancing excitedly in a hallway for a couple of seconds after learning she’s going to finally get laid (a bit of advice: If you do this, please seek help and stop watching Katherine Heigl movies).  But much of the humor in Love Actually is really sharp; even a seemingly easy cartoon of a character like horny catering assistant Colin Frissell (Kris Marshall), whose sole mission in life is to go to Wisconsin and score with equally horny American girls, is given a bizarre, even touching moment to shine.

Balancing out the comedy is a handful of solid dramatic scenes that give the movie heft without changing its tone.  In my review of The Kids are All Right, I mentioned that the great scene where Annette Bening learns of her partner’s infidelity was set to the music of Joni Mitchell; while a strong piece of acting and directing, it pales next to Emma Thompson’s silent devastation when Karen receives a Christmas gift from Harry that is not the gold necklace she'd found in his coat pocket.  He got her a Joni Mitchell album after she told him that Mitchell “taught her how to feel”, and Harry offers her the album as a means of “continuing her emotional education.”  It’s a wonderfully pointed line, and when we next see Karen in the bedroom blasting “Both Sides Now”, you can see her entire relationship with Harry playing out on her face. 

Music plays just as important a role in Love Actually’s effectiveness as the acting and writing.  Seven years on, you may wince at hearing Dido’s “Here With Me” on the soundtrack, but the song absolutely works in context (the same goes for The Calling’s “Whereever You Will Go”, believe it or not).  Though it’s a Christmas movie, we’re not inundated with randomly placed holiday carols; the music choices evoke the cuddly, sugar-plum feelings of the season, but they tend to focus on people needing love or losing love.  Darlene Love’s “All Alone on Christmas”, for example, has a rollicking, cheesy beat, but its lyrics are downright depressing.  Kelly Clarkson’s “The Trouble With Love Is” plays over an office Christmas party practically devoid of cheer.  The big showstopper at the end, a school concert in which Sam plays drums behind his would-be girlfriend's rendition of "All I Want for Christmas", is the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a movie like this, but if you’ve committed to Love Actually, the effect is moving and joyous.  The highest praise I can give the film’s music is that I can no longer hear The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” without thinking of the closing Heathrow Airport montage.

Ah, yes, Heathrow Airport.  As I mentioned earlier, there’s one scene that stands out as being ultra-gooey in this movie, and that’s the one where all of the characters meet in one place to wrap up their storylines with hugs, kisses and, in one instance, a cold shoulder.  It’s the one part of Love Actually that tries way too hard; on multiple viewings, I’ve come to forgive it, and even appreciate it, but this sappy, convenient moment belies all of the quirk and honesty of the preceding two hours.  Fortunately, it leads right into the genuinely touching montage of real people meeting and embracing to that beautiful Beach Boys tune—making all right with the world.

My one thematic gripe with the film is the repeated use of the word “actually”.  I don’t know if it’s a British thing or what, but that word is peppered throughout the screenplay and it drives me fucking bonkers.  “Love” also pops up a lot, but I hear that at least once a day, and can believe it would come out of peoples’ mouths on a regular basis.  “Actually” is on the less-common side of commonly used words, but according to this movie, it’s as vital to communication as “hello.”

What separates Love Actually from ninety-nine percent of the romantic dramadies that followed it is the filmmakers’ respect for their audience.  Like Going the Distance, this is an R-rated film with a good amount of nudity and swearing; both of which are used to great comedic affect here—rather than acting as a fine mist of Glade hovering over a litter box.  I believed that I might run into these characters, and that if I did I would like to stick around and get to know them.  Love Actually exists in the small pantheon of great films of its kind by acting as a solid movie first and a targeted piece of female escapism second.

And if you need more of a ringing endorsement, this is the movie that made me appreciate the charms and gentle comedic awesomeness of Hugh Grant—which is no small feat, actually.