Love Actually (2003)

Dir. Richard Curtis. Starring Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson

Although I don’t watch nearly as much television as I used to—at this point in my life, I really feel like I’m down to Food Network and sports—anyone who turns on the set during December will inevitably see a car commercial and a jewelry commercial. The former typically comes with ringing musical accompaniment and, of course, custom bows the size of a Komodo dragon. The latter is the Great Universal Hint for any man who has failed to become affianced but who might rectify that via a very expensive Christmas gift. Christmas is a time for gestures, in other words, for people to make reaching decisions and act boldly. And whatever that boldness is, there’s a honeymoon period which will almost certainly last through the rest of the year. It’s not a season for carrying through but for giant splashes. Even in Christmas movies one finds much the same rationale. After all, It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t end with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed quietly contemplating their future in Bedford Falls or sharing hot chocolate by the fire; it ends with Bedford Falls squeezing into their house and exploding into thousands of dollars right in front of them. By this measure, given its several grand iterations on the same theme which build on top of each other at the end of the picture, Love Actually certainly tells us something about what we value in late capitalist Christmas. Whether or not it reminds of you of Buster bidding $10,000 on Lucille Austero at the charity auction or it feels like a long joyous crescendo is, I think, largely a matter of taste. It’s the reason why I can’t handle the movie between January and October, but feel an itch to watch it in late November and come back to it almost yearly in December. Who drinks eggnog in the summertime?

In an interview, Curtis draws a comparison between Love Actually and Robert Altman’s two finest movies, Nashville and Short Cuts. (To be fair to Curtis, he says he drew on them as inspirations for this movie, not that he thinks he’s making some spiritual sequel to them or, God forbid, legitimately comparing Love Actually outright to one of the five greatest movies ever made.) One of my takeaways from Short Cuts applies, in some sense, to Love Actually as well:

The lesson is fairly clear: when the characters become less vapid, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the movie becomes less vapid.

So much of Love Actually is built up in characters coming to recognize something about themselves which makes them, hopefully, less vapid. There is no question that Andrew Lincoln is the Jar Jar Binks of Love Actually, which is a comparison I like because I’m pretty sure that makes Keira Knightley Boss Nass. Mark is in love with his best friend’s new bride and has no reasonable way to manage it. His wedding video is made almost entirely of close-ups of Juliet’s face. He gives her a literal slideshow which ends in a weird kiss that she instigates, for reasons no one has ever explained. “Enough,” he murmurs to himself post-kiss as he walks away, boombox carolers still caroling away. Mark is probably this movie’s most vacuous character, and coming to understand some sliver of that vacuity hardly makes Love Actually a stronger movie. Nor have I ever been sure that Sarah (Laura Linney) choosing her brother, Michael (Michael Fitzgerald) over chief graphic designer and internationally recognized Chanel model Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) makes this a better movie. Certainly it makes Sarah into a more decisive character, which is at the very least defensible. The only people who I think become more interesting over the course of the movie are Karen (Thompson) and Harry (Alan Rickman), who only accomplish this by doing what a great many bored haute bourgeois couples do when their children no longer need supervision at every moment. Karen is hardly flighty—Emma Thompson could no more be flighty than an ostrich could—but she’s living an existence which seems to need her as a very ’50s kind of mum. Her daughter is to be “first lobster” in the nativity play, which requires a special crustacean costume that Karen presumably makes herself. She wraps presents. She is in charge of rides and, in deleted scenes, trouble at school. Perhaps this is Thompson at work, but it seems that there’s just a great deal more to the woman than motherhood that the movie is reticent to show or perhaps isn’t at all curious about. She is witty throughout; discovering that she is eloquent and forceful in her language is such a powerful revelation that Harry almost literally doubles over when she confronts him about the necklace he’s bought for another woman.

One of the reasons I’m partial to this movie has to do with its status as a pseudo-musical. (Incidentally, Nashville is a musical and Short Cuts relies on jazz as a transitioning agent. Once more, for the people in the back: Love Actually is not as successful with music as those Altman movies.) None of the major characters in this movie are likely performers, but Love Actually uses musical cues and a solid soundtrack intelligently to tell us about its people. The movie begins with Billy Mack (Bill Nighy), the incorrigible old rock star who didn’t have the good fortune to die when he was famous, reduced to singing a Christmas cover of “Love is All Around.” That song seems to work on just about everybody throughout the film, either as the kind of weak soundtrack that radio once provided or through the predictably silly music video that accidentally inspires Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) to pick up the drums, which he’ll use as his first and ill-fated grand gesture in a school performance of “All I Want for Christmas is You.” “Both Sides Now” is used to significant effect, of course. “I can’t believe you still listen to Joni Mitchell,” Harry says wearily to Karen while she wraps presents, and in that moment you can watch their marriage die. He’s blocked himself off from the kind of genuine feeling that Karen still reaches for; he turns her vulnerability into a present somewhat better than a scarf. A pair of time capsule songs, Norah Jones’ “Turn Me On” and Kelly Clarkson’s pre-Breakaway “The Trouble with Love Is” bring together couples which have no chance at survival. The former comes on suddenly as Sarah and Karl find the dance floor; the latter bathes Harry and Mia (Heike Makatsch) in a warm adulterous glow. Sometimes, as is the case in just about every musical, there are songs that don’t work. Whoever was in charge of editing this movie must be an enormous Dido fan, because otherwise I don’t know how this “Here with Me” commercial makes it to theatrical release. Even that little “doo-doo-doo-doo” air which plays about fifty times in the first twenty minutes of the movie is its own code for “love is in the air!”

And there are, it must be said, scenes in which image and music come together to create the highlight of Hugh Grant’s career.

Or, if you’re inclined the way I am, “Good King Wenceslas.” But I’m not picky!

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m afraid my favorite couple in Love Actually is Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lucia Moniz). This is not quite as bad as saying that you like Mark and Juliet, but it sure is close because there’s very little that can be romantic about what those two share. She is a good fifteen years younger than him, she cleans up after him for a couple of weeks in his vacation home, he drives her back to her end of town, he sees her in her underwear, they don’t speak much better than the pidgin versions of each other’s languages, they cannot possibly know the things one ought to know about someone you buy a sofa from, much less fall for…and they get engaged? It is a losing strategy, this one, and yet I find myself captivated by the two of them. Love Actually is such a cheesy mess that it genuinely posits that people can fall in love the way Jamie and Aurelia do despite all (the super, super good) evidence to the contrary. It believes in a gut-level attraction that supersedes all reason, and which feeds into that “grand gesture” ideology discussed above. No one, I think, makes a gesture with so much to lose and with so little hope of success as Jamie does, which makes it feel more honest. I can take or leave nearly everything about Jamie and Aurelia appearing before this proposal (which, seriously, he does at her job while she’s at work?), but something about the nakedness of this request, made in front of strangers who could, and might, silently judge this Englishman’s lovelorn arrogance, feels terribly honest to me.

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