The movement to denounce Love Actually, presenting all the reasons you shouldn’t like it in a doomed and self-righteous attempt to counteract its alleged status as a (the?) new Christmas classic, rewarded by essential viewing at that time of the year, appears to have eclipsed the film itself. Going by Google, at any rate (and Google never lies). I wouldn’t seek to take an axe to Richard Curtis’ confection on the basis of its regressive qualities however; how many romcoms are truly praiseworthy in that regard? But rather, because, for the most part, it’s too offputtingly calculated – in writing, in performance and in its resort to studied sentimentality – to take away many positives. It’s like eating an entire tin of low-grade chocolates and feeling very queasy afterwards; Love Actually’s a Quality Street experience.
I’m trying to recall my response first time round, as I hadn’t revisited the picture in total since I saw it at the cinema. I think I saw it in line with Curtis’ post Notting Hill tipping point, whereby all he had left was to repeat himself, only this time via a series of edited highlights. I don’t think I was so much offended as left insensible, overcome with treacle. I do recall that I liked the Bill Nighy sequence; now, it looks like the culmination of his overexposure in playing a Nighy type, but then, it represented his big breakthrough (I think Still Crazy, half a decade earlier, was the first time I’d really registered him).
Which is to say, Nighy’s still appealing, but as with most of the writing here, Curtis overplays his deck and the character of Billy Mack becomes the movie’s signature line in all-consuming smugness. How could you resist the fading popstar playing a Christmas-ised version of Love is All Around in his birthday suit while aiming (very mild) swipes at Ant or Dec? And how can you resist Curtis infusing all his characters with very middle-class and endearing potty mouths (except for the working-class ones, who are endearing to the middle-class ones because of their working-class potty mouths)?
Love Actually is shot through with the fuckity-fuck legacy of Four Weddings and a Funeral, then almost a decade past, in much the same way sitcoms, of which Curtis was obviously an experienced hand, are reliant on the repeated, applause-generating catchphrase or pratfall. But with Love Actually, there’s added cynicism, right down to lifting Love is All Around from Four Weddings’ hit single. It isn’t just cynical; it’s incredibly lazy, in the same way that music-lover Curtis – see Yesterday – applies obvious standards to pep things up in shorthand where the writing isn’t doing the heavy lifting.
Accordingly, there’s a pop-culture puerility throughout, where taste is as mass-culture as possible. It’s there in Liam Neeson and son Thomas Sangster watching Titanic together – itself a sub-About a Boy relationship, culminating in a young terrorist running free in Heathrow aided and abetted by his dad and a devious jewellery salesman. In the congregation at Keira Knightley and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s wedding bursting into All You Need is Love. In the wish-fulfilment fantasy casting (in some cases self-referentially so, but nevertheless) based on Curtis’ FHM subscription (Claudia Schiffer, Ivana Milicevic, January Jones, Elisha Cuthbert, Shannon Elizabeth, Denise Richards). And in the Henry Higgins/Eliza Doolittle of Hugh Grant’s PM and Martin McCutcheon’s junior staffer (but with added fat jokes). It’s even there with the in-jokes: Andrew Lincoln’s stalker has Rear Window prominently on his video shelf. Wouldn’t Peeping Tom have been more sinister/ appropriate?
Partly, the issues with Love Actually relate to tone. Partly, the issues relate simply to it not being very romantic, its broadcast intent (culminating in real people arriving at Heathrow as an allusion to this all relating to real world affection, in some perverse way). Tone-wise, Curtis veers all over the place. The Kris Marshall sequence, like the Nighy one, is overtly ludicrous and so gains points for achieving what it sets out to – Marshall goes to America convinced the girls there love an English accent and is promptly surrounded by hot promiscuous babes dying for a piece of him. Martin Freeman and Joanna Page, getting to know each other as stand-ins on a sex film also manages to sustain itself, contrasting the mundane and heightened, and unlike much that we see here, places a value on relationship rather than love at first sight as the answer to all life’s woes.
The rest of the stories are odd in many respects, however. Laura Linney’s self-defeating graphic designer finally lands Rodrigo Santoro and then doesn’t, due to her devotion to her mentally-ill brother; but for the really rather stark, raw scene of her visiting her sibling (Michael Fitzgerald) in a care facility, it seems rather shallow and one-note (what, they aren’t even going to try for a remount?)
In the Alan Rickman/Emma Thompson plotline, Rickman is, on the one hand, preyed upon by evil office floozy Heike Makatsch (she has no character trait other than being a wanton seductress), making it one of the most cartoonish of the collection. On the other, Thompson’s reaction on realising he is conducting a dalliance is genuine and moving, as saying nothing, she goes off alone, breaks down, composes herself, and returns to the family (earlier, however, she has to fend off horrible Curtis lines like “No one’s ever going to shag you if you cry all the time” to grieving Neeson, which comes after the Bay City Rollers blares out at his wife’s funeral – Curtis has a song for every occasion).
Those pockets of insight only serve to emphasise how shallow the whole is, and so the references to 9/11 (messages of love were sent by those on the planes, not hate, Hugh informs us sagely) and political idealism seem particularly cynical, misplaced and yes, even offensive (that would be Hugh again, calling out US President Billy Bob Thornton, not because he’s baulking at the special relationship – Curtis’ attempt to comment the Blair-Bush cosiness – but because he tries to pull a Chelsea on McCutcheon).
I should mention the Colin Firth episode, I guess, but it’s particularly limp. Possibly it would have worked better with Grant, but as it is, it’s an indifferent “falls in love and asks to marry girl who doesn’t even speak English after he sees her in her undies”. At least the Knightley and Lincoln plot stands out for how wrong it is. That somehow, she thinks his keeping wank videos of her wedding is romantic enough that he deserves a kiss, and he duly resolves to get on with his life and marry Kate Moss (which he does in the Red Nose sequel, meaning Curtis is consistent, if nothing else).
I was also struck by the age gaps in Curtis’ pairings off, which aside from Linney’s (doomed) attempts (a mere eleven years) are entirely skewed towards the men. Thirty-year-old Lincoln is creepily obsessing over an eighteen-year-old. Rickman is being pursued by someone 25 years younger. Hugh has sixteen years on Martine, as does Colin on Lucia Moniz. And Neeson’s eighteen years older than Schiffer. Lust Actually?
That’s par for the course, of course. What turns me off Love Actually the most, besides the annual Grauniad articles, is that it’s so synthetic. It’s every sincere and comic impulse Curtis has had over the years distilled and Xeroxed. If you like his brand, you’re quids in. If you’re unconvinced, you’ll likely swear off for life, actually.