This past week the Internet has been on fire with arguments about Love Actually, a fluffy romantic British-made Christmas movie from 2003. Controversies on the Internet move at hyperspeed and thus it might already be passé to talk about it, but having watched the movie just last night I thought I’d toss my own hat in the ring–on the perhaps spurious assumption that anyone cares what a metalhead, historian and horror writer thinks about a quaint British romantic comedy movie.
First, a little bit about the movie itself. The film was written and directed by British comedy impresario Richard Curtis, the man behind romantic movies like Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral. His most ambitious production, Love Actually is sort of a Noah’s ark of British character actors. Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley, Hugh Grant, Colin Firth and Bill Nighy all show up as well as lots of other actors who will make you say, “Hey, what else was he/she in?” The plot concerns no less than ten stories of couples, wanna-be couples or couple-like pairings who have some sort of relationships with each other. I don’t have the space to run them all down here, but some representative examples include Jamie (Colin Firth), a writer who retreats to France to write his book and ends up falling in love with his housekeeper; John (Martin Freeman from Sherlock and The Hobbit) who is a body double in movies and falls in love with his co-worker Judy (Joanna Page); and David (Hugh Grant), the Prime Minister of the UK, who falls in love with a staffer, Natalie (Martine McCutcheon).
Now, the controversy. While Love Actually was a general success upon its release 10 years ago, it received mixed reviews and pretty much sank off the cultural radar screen–until this Christmas season. Chris Orr of The Atlantic wrote this scathing blog, denouncing the film as the “least romantic film of all time.” (He hasn’t seen I Spit On Your Grave, evidently). Others, like Emma Green, took to their blogs to defend the film. The main point of contention appears to be the validity of the messages the movie supposedly gives about love, romance and relationships. Now everybody is arguing about this silly movie. Well, I guess it’s a better (and safer) holiday dinner-table conversation than the very tired debate over Obamacare.
Having re-watched the film last night, I have to say I enjoyed it. It’s certainly not the best, funniest, most charming or most romantic Christmas movie ever made. But it’s decent. I enjoyed the story about Hugh Grant as the Prime Minister, because it’s intriguing to think about what would happen if a major political leader came to power as a bachelor and then fell in love while in office. (The Michael Douglas film The American President, made in 1995, is the American version of that idea). I also laughed at the story with Bill Nighy as the rock star trying to record a Christmas cover–in fact the film opens with this–and who ends up spending Christmas Eve with his (male) producer, getting drunk and watching porn. I was also touched by Liam Neeson’s performance as a recent widower with a young son just discovering love for the first time. I wasn’t too keen on the Keira Knightley story, and the Colin Firth one about the writer was strictly paint-by-numbers. But as far as entertaining me for two hours and putting a smile on my face, Love Actually did that.
Do we really want to ask a holiday film to do more than that? Part of the reason I was interested in seeing the movie again was because I’d been thinking recently of how incredibly risky is the business of making Christmas movies–more risky, I think, than making other kinds of movies. Once in a generation a Christmas-themed film will rise above the fray and become a “holiday classic,” like A Christmas Story did–and that took nearly 20 years, the film having bombed on its initial release. Almost all Christmas movies don’t make the grade, and a bad Christmas movie is an even more unpleasant experience than a bad other-kind-of-movie. Who remembers One Magic Christmas? Or Santa Claus with David Huddleston, from the ’80s? Elf with Will Ferrell was painful. The Polar Express turned out to be a one-way ticket to the Uncanny Valley. Don’t even get me started on what sort of hallucinogenic brew the makers of the Jim Carrey The Grinch Who Stole Christmas were drinking when they thought making that horrible piece of tripe was a good idea.
The cast of “Love Actually” reunited recently, at least in this YouTube video, which shows you what they look like now. Check out the kid, Sam, who is now a 20-something hipster.
Given these misfires, Love Actually is a much safer bet, and much more successful because its sights are lower. For one thing, it’s not aimed at children. Producers trying to get a Christmas movie off the ground will almost invariably make the mistake of turning it into a “family” movie, as if only kids like Christmas movies. Love Actually is aimed at adults. As such it can entertain on a more cerebral and more subtle level than the cartoony slapstick that Hollywood thinks is required to appeal to children. For this reason also Love Actually can afford to strike closer to home. Who among us doesn’t have some sort of family strife, personal disappointment or even tragedy stalking us during the holiday season? Love Actually gives us mentally disturbed siblings, guilt over attempted adultery, envy of a family member’s success, and struggling to cope with the death of a loved one. A lesser, more poorly-made Christmas movie would attempt to weave these threads into a rope of maudlin tragedy and use it to pull tears out of the audience’s eyes. Richard Curtis resists the obvious temptations to do that. Despite these sad aspects, the movie never tries to be anything other than light-hearted and upbeat.
As for the “messages” about love that the movie supposedly teaches, give me a break. One of the main criticisms of the movie is that it depicts love blossoming among people who don’t know each other well, or that it assumes love is easy, light and fun when in fact it’s serious and momentous. Really? Really? This is where I think Chris Orr is particularly off base. He writes:
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.
This totally misses the point. Love Actually is not a treatise on love. It’s not a faithful mirror of real human relationships. Yes, love is not absurdly easy, and it does require sustained effort, mutual exploration and discovery, care and nurture, and obstacles overcome. But is that what we really need to ask a Christmas-holiday movie to show us? Love takes effort, nurturing and obstacles. Sometimes–much of the time, actually–love is an anguished and angst-ridden journey through the depths of our own and our partner’s souls. But love also has its highlights, its frivolous and exuberant side, and its sweetness. That’s what we want to see on the screen, particularly at Christmastime. Christopher Orr’s problem with Love Actually is that it’s not love as depicted by Tolstoy or D.H. Lawrence.
It’s a Christmas movie, people. Is it fun? Does it make you laugh? Can you enjoy it while sitting on the couch with your significant other, glass of wine in hand? If so, case closed. I’ll take Love Actually over most other awful holiday movies any day of the week.
But then again, I liked Star Trek: Generations, so what the hell do I know?