Toxic messaging, wrapped in sloppy film-making, served by an all-star cast that makes this malignant mess only seem like harmless entertainment. So why is this so beloved?
The success of Love Actually, both commercially and in its continued presence in the pop cultural landscape, is confounding to me. The film’s ideas of love and romance are largely toxic, the stories are barely sketches, and the film-making is roundly sub-par. Story arcs are incomplete, the dialogue is bland, the camerawork ugly, the editing flabby – all adding up to an unearned two-hour runtime. Maybe audiences are distracted from the problems within the film’s multiple storylines by just how many of them (problems and storylines) there are.
Writer / director Richard Curtis has certainly created better romantic comedies: Four Weddings & A Funeral is a tighter film and more biting in its humour; the romance in Notting Hill acts as a Trojan horse for an interesting consideration: as a vehicle for an appeal to the genre’s most rabid, celebrity-obsessed fans to consider their favourite stars as vulnerable people, and not simply products to be consumed. Love Actually, by comparison, is a chop suey of half-baked ideas and under-cooked vignettes, which are all about objectification.
The various storylines in Love Actually are tenuously connected: certain characters are related, others ultimately revealed to be acquaintances. The other thing all the storylines have in common: they’re all tales of workplace hook-ups. Some have a minimal story arc, others a twist, almost all of them toxic.
For a film whose title suggests it is at least interested in human connection in practice, most characters in Love Actually merely objectify eachother – and this antisocial through-line is glossed over by the “comedy” with which it is presented.
So let’s take Love Actually apart, one “storyline” at a time:
Juliet, Mark and Peter
The layer-cake of creepy in this story alone is exemplary of the tone of Love Actually as an anthology. It culminates in what is perhaps the most infamous “romantic” scene of the film: Mark (Andrew Lincoln) flipping through cue cards which declare his unrequited feelings for Juliet (Keira Knightley). The catch: Juliet is married to Mark’s best friend, Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor). The twist: at first, we’re led to believe Mark is in love with Peter, until Juliet discovers Mark has feelings for her. How? When she views the video footage he took of their wedding – or, more accurately, Mark’s collection of leering, objectifying, extreme close-ups of only Juliet. While Mark literally frames out his best friend as he zooms in on his mate’s girl, Love Actually in turn frames Mark as a hopeless romantic, even when his behaviour envinces neither love or friendship.
The Prime Minister and the “Chubby” Girl
The PM’s (Hugh Grant) first major foreign policy move is actually a show of his ownership of his secretary Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), signalling to the sleazy US President (Billy Bob Thornton) that she is the PM’s sexual property. In a further abuse of his power, the PM then transfers Natalie away, without explanation (how would she not feel responsible?). Yet rather than exhibit any shock or hurt in response to his professional (and arguably personal) abuse, Natalie’s xmas card to the PM literally ends with the words, “I’m yours”. When the PM finally decides to actually claim Natalie, he offers her no explanation or apology for his previous actions; Natalie, in turn, declares her love to him. Adding to Natalie’s evident lack of self-worth and constant degradation at work and at home, every other other character seems unable to refer to her without making a fat joke – including the PM, whose final line in the film is, “God you weigh a lot.” Hugh Grant’s trademark charm (and even that infamous dance scene) doesn’t change the fact that the PM, at least on the page, is just as much of a dick as the US President.
Daniel & Sam
Widower Daniel (Liam Neeson) coaches his recently orphaned, lovesick stepson Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) using romance films as reference texts (the two of them re-enacting “Kate & Leo” in Titanic is oddly Oedipal, and goes uncommented on). So it can’t surprise anyone when this pre-pubescent kid proves to be evangelical about the idea of “the one”, and fixates on a girl he’s never even conversed with (and who shares his dead mother’s name, just to double down on all that Oedipus we thought we’d moved past). Of course, being a supportive dad, Daniel encourages Sam to charge through airport security to declare his love to a girl he’s surprised to find even knows his name. This, in a post-9/11 film. Would this be framed as responsible parenting – would the kid have even made it past customs alive – if he wasn’t, y’know, white?
The Writer and the Portuguese Help
Cuckolded Jamie (Colin Firth) relocates to a French seaside shack with his typewriter and his broken heart. Though (housekeeper? maid?) Aurélia (Lúcia Moniz) speaks only Portuguese, she and Jamie manage to say the same things to eachother – but only we, the audience, know that (and know how uninspired the dialogue is, and how identically boring it reveals these two people to be). Regardless, this is somehow grounds enough for Jamie to, on Christmas, fly back from London to the French village, round up Aurélia’s extended family (who don’t know who he is), crash her workplace during her shift, and further put her on the spot by proposing in front of everyone. No first date even? No prior indication that she might be interested or even receptive to him? It would be ceremonious to call this bold, as opposed to, say, sociopathic.
Colin, Tony, and the American Girls
“Love”? Not “actually”, but… sure. There certainly is such a thing as going on a foreign sexcapade, and cashing in on one’s boosted “exotic” value in a foreign land. Why, however, it took so many redundant camera angles, sloppy cuts, and unremarkable lines of dialogue to show what is said neatly enough in the sequence’s final two shots – Colin & girls at the bar; Colin & girls through the bedroom window – is beyond me, and is an unwitty waste of time.
Karen, Harry, and The Receptionist
Harry’s (Alan Rickman) receptionist (Sarah McDougall) is coming onto him very strongly. He’s revealed to be married to Karen (Emma Thompson), who discovers his intent to reciprocate and, brokenhearted, confronts him with the single most relatable line of the film: “What would you do in my position?” It’s unclear what his answer, and their resolution, ultimately is. In another film, that could be considered deliberate ambiguity, perhaps even nuance, a portrayal of the often complicated long-term tensions within marriage. However, given the sloppiness of every other character’s lines in Love Actually, and Rickman’s seeming lack of interest in even being here, this story doesn’t seem to “say” anything. I’d believe Thompson is solely responsible for Karen being this sympathetic – and that she wrote her own lines – given the lack of comparable nuance in any of this film’s other stories.
(Side note: McDougall’s character is perhaps the peak example of Love Actually‘s objectification problem – her character is credited simply as “Receptionist”, and in all her scenes without Rickman she is alone, at home, in her underwear).
“Christmas is All Around” is framed within the film as a cynical, cash-grab rework of a beloved hit. In our reality, “Love Is All Around” was featured in Curtis’ own earlier and far better breakout hit, Four Weddings And A Funeral. We’re either being trolled, or shat upon.
Sarah and her Brother
This, the darkest of all the film’s storylines, ends with its protagonist (Laura Linney) deciding she can never have a relationship so long as her “job” is taking care of her mentally ill brother. In a more thoughtful film, Sarah’s situation might compliment the more frothy romance in some of the other stories; but without anything to balance, this side of the see-saw just lands with a thud.
The Porn Stand-Ins
In a film about workplace hook-ups, this contains the film’s only wholesome, respectful courtship between co-workers: John (Martin Freeman) and “Just” Judy (Joanna Page). Given the lack of an actual story here, the “joke” seems to be the absurdity that two people in such a “sleazy” industry could actually be respectful and professional. This betrays Love Actually‘s cynicism or, more generously, its lack of self-awareness.
Which brings us to the story which contains the most on-the-nose, self-scathing encapsulation of everything wrong with this movie:
The Ageing Rock Star and The Manager
Seemingly to its credit, Love Actually decides to include a platonic workplace love story; ultimately to its detriment, this story is as toxic as any other in this collection. Bitter, cynical, over-the-hill rock star Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) devotes every scene he’s in to being verbally abusive to his manager Joe (Gregor Fisher). Despite Billy’s best attempts to sabotage his own chances at scoring a successful comeback hit (and his clear lack of concern that torpedoing his own career would also mean taking his long-suffering employee down with him), Joe’s hard work pays off: Billy’s awful song is a hit, and he is rewarded with the celebrity perks he claims to crave. (Amazingly, the song – as described within the movie – is a cynical, cash-grabby, Christmas-themed rework of ‘Love Is All Around’, the featured song from Curtis’ own Four Weddings And A Funeral… I mean, it’s in the text, people!)
Billy’s ultimate decision to instead spend Christmas with Joe, and to call him the love of his life, is presented as some kind of sentimental moment of character growth. Yet, by Billy’s own admission, his abuse of Joe spans decades; and this moment is prompted not by some deep, transformative moment within Billy, but simply because Joe has delivered Billy the kind of material prize he sought. Joe did his job; Billy “loves” him for that. Had Joe failed, would Billy have still told him he loved him? Like Hugh Grant’s PM, Bill Nighy is so likeable as a screen presence, and his portrayal so ridiculously hammy (is Nighy actually a good actor?), that he distracts from how vile, venomous and unredeemable his character is, and how his relationship with his employee is as far from “love, actually,” as “Christmas Is All Around” is from being even vaguely listenable.
Why does any of this matter?
Years after its release, and long into its tenure as a beloved seasonal touchstone, I’m no closer to understanding the lasting appeal of Love Actually. Whether or not the film intends it, the character of Sam represents the chicken-and-egg of toxic romanticism in movies like this: dramatic gestures and unrequited fixations are expressions of “love”; seeing this in movies both creates and affirms expectations for the audience that these things are aspirationally “romantic”. This has the potential for consequences in the real world – a world in which this film made nearly a quarter of a million dollars, a figure which doesn’t even include its persistent DVD sales and TV showings in the years since.
Perhaps the real takeaway is simpler, more cynical: with enough star power and cross-cutting, one can indeed polish a toxic turd.