It’s becoming increasingly fashionable in social media to bash Love Actually, but I still love it and watch it at least twice each year. (FTC Disclosure*: If you haven’t yet seen this movie, here’s my Amazon affiliate link to it. Note that it is rated R for reasons that you’ll soon understand.)
Here’s why I love it a decade after it came out:
1. Love Actually is non-linear and reminds me of watching great improv. Typical conventions about what a romantic comedy movie “should be” are more or less thrown out the window. It’s social commentary, really, about a particular period of time wrapped up in the pretty paper of a romcom.
2.Like great improv or experimental theatre, Love Actually is edgy because of the strong cultural references, explicit language, and nudity. It’s also very much a product of the time in which it was produced, which means that some of the most interesting points being made in the script are increasingly lost on viewers.
3. Because of the nudity and language, I don’t feel compelled to share the viewing of it with my kid just because it’s set in the holiday season. It’s a movie for grown-ups and grown-up ideas in a season overrun with kid stuff. Hurrah!
4. There’s a lot of fun being had by the filmmakers when they have actor Colin Firth jump into the pond. Remember Pride and Prejudice from the BBC? It was a cultural touchstone with him in the pond as Darcy. (In the UK they even had a giant inflatable Firth-as-Darcy in Hyde Park for awhile.) The filmmakers are playing with that icon on purpose using the same actor who is a decade older and, in this movie, is temperamentally the opposite of Mr. Darcy.
5. Some people freak out about the substantial nudity in the body double scenes, but that storyline, for me, is a commentary on how sex and love aren’t the same thing. We’ve come to accept the one-night-stand-turned-into-a-romance thing as “normal” in our movies, but the plot line is a blunt reminder that there is a difference between the mechanics of sex and romantic love. This is the plot with which most people have trouble, and I can’t help but wonder if some of that discomfort comes because it pushes back against cultural norms of what and who “good girls” are–and what they choose to do with their bodies.
6. You know that extended shot of “Mark,” the gallery curator, leaving the apartment just after his best friend’s new wife (“Juliet”) learns of his secret crush? Wow. The song and the action–the way he visibly struggles about going or staying–still take my breath away.
7. The kid with Liam Neeson who busts through Heathrow (!) security is a giant thumbing of the nose at where adult hostility and aggression has taken us. It’s still uncomfortable to watch because we all know there’s no way even the former Mr. Blackadder (doing a bit of angel-like business in the airport after an earlier turn at Selfridge’s) could get any kid past multiple levels of security. We know that, in real life, for trying to reach his childhood crush and declare his love at her gate, that kid and his dad would end up detained or worse. (Mind you, I love Heathrow’s commitment to security–and have benefited from it when traveling, but it’s true that the best intentions of the modern world often run rough shod over our humanity.)
8. Since this is a British movie written in the wake of 9/11 and resulting in wars that a lot of people around the world feel wer unnecessary, the storyline with the prime minister and the president and the smart-mouthed ordinary English girl represents a desire to stand up to perceived American bossiness. At the time, a lot of people around the globe and here at home wanted to stand up to the US president just like the prime minister does in the press conference. And isn’t the president a curious blend of George W. Bush’s bravado and Bill Clinton? The Monica Lewinsky affair is clearly referenced by the casting of the young, curvy, dark-haired woman and her encounter with the President in the prime minister’s private study. So the dig against American leadership is bipartisan.
9. Did I mention that (my personal favorite British actor EVER) Colin Firth is in it? And Liam Neeson, Keira Knightley, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Emma Thompson, Martin Freeman, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant… I could go on and on but suffice it to say that the entire cast is extraordinarily talented. No wonder other producers, directors and big-name actors tried this innovative ensemble rom-com formula (“Valentine’s Day” and “New Year’s Eve”). Alas, none of them packed the punch of the original, and I think because of these more recent misses, Love Actually has been diminished.
10. There are many off-hand but memorable lines like “I love Uncle Jamie…. I hate Uncle Jamie.” and “Eight is a lot of legs, David.”
Then there’s this gem, the first few lines in the movie–delivered by Hugh Grant–that reveal the filmmaker’s objective in uniting the subsequent scenes:
Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.
Truth be told, my only major beef with the movie today is that the poignant storyline with the same-sex couple got cut. It was a mature lesbian pair, one of whom was the principal at the school. (You can see it on the DVD.)
At the end of the day, I enjoy Love Actually precisely because of its imperfections, snarls, and tangles. It’s filled with clever devices and cultural riffs. It forces me to suspend my disbelief in a way that is jarring and provocative. The film is quirky and weird and leaves me weepy and thoughtful every time–just like good theatre.
*If you purchase the film through my Amazon affiliate link, I receive a modest compensation. Pennies, really.