No Actually

On December 14, 2012 by Karen

Basically the worst still I could find

 

It seems Love Actually has cemented its place in the Western popular imaginary as the ideal Christmas film. It has everything – unrequited and then requited love, romantic proposals, familial commitment, adorable children, twinkly lights and the comical awkwardness so representative of its creator, Richard Curtis.

Let me admit, up front, that every time I’ve watched this film I’m reduced to tears and laughter at all the obvious moments; my heartstrings are played like a harp and I remember how much I love that Beach Boys song (and Emma Thompson). But as soon as it’s over I want to take a Silkwood shower of the soul because I’ve been wallowing in such offensive garbage for 135 minutes. Yes, that’s correct. Love Actually is over two hours long.*

So I understand why everyone loves it. It’s a confection, a spun-sugar tale of so little substance that the barest of plots can be hung on a series of levers to be pulled and pushed in order to generate the requisite emotion. Here the fantasia of The Perfect Wedding™, there the child who has lost his mother and cannot comfort his father, and back here again the frisson of the taboo sexual encounter.

But that’s not a crime! Plenty of films have flimsy stories, are emotionally manipulative, can only manage predictable and hokey! And lots of those films are jolly good fun. And Love Actually can be too. But underneath its psychotically cheerful façade is an ugly reality that I feel compelled to explore on the page (giving credit where it is due, of course).

Here are just some of the Things I Hate About Love Actually.

The plot holes/lack of plot/arrogance of having no plot

Richard Curtis wrote a great movie and almost ruined it by casting Andie MacDowell as the romantic lead. Richard Curtis wrote an okay movie and saved it by casting Julia Roberts as the romantic lead. Richard Curtis wrote an awful movie and tried to distract us by casting it chock full of really very good actors and some amusing ones.

But unlike Curtis’s other films Love Actually has no plot. It has themes and motifs, and yes, a few beautiful vignettes. But this technique of weaving together the multiple strands of a narrative into a satisfying whole only works if there’s an overarching metanarrative to bind it and ‘People love each other’ is not enough.

The female characters

 Oh my god, I can barely type these sentences without spewing actual bile all over the keyboard so let’s make it simple and break it down:

  • The working-class tea lady
  • The wronged housewife (also nobody sister of PM)
  • The slutty secretary
  • The foreign maid with the no English
  • The beautiful wife (these are the only character notes I can imagine) who (almost) comes between two best mates
  • The put-upon erstwhile carer of the disabled brother
  • The canonised dead mother
  • Representatives of Sluts Across America

Am I forgetting anyone? Do I need to explain why this sucks? Okay, I’ll do my best. All of these characters are vehicles for us to understand something about the male characters they are attached to. None of them have an identity or subjectivity or narrative meaning outside this and all of them are in some sense beholden to or outright answerable to their respective menfolk. In the case of the tea lady, the secretary and the cleaning maid, the power differential is literally marked out in terms of industrial relations but hey IT’S ROMANTIC WHEN THE BOSS HITS ON YOU IF HE’S CUTE AMIRITE LOL. But even the empowered women (maybe the secretary, the housewife, the career woman who also looks after her brother) are brought low in some hideous way, humiliated by the narrative and for the audience’s benefit. Oh, I know it’s only a movie but fuck, not a single woman who exists unto herself? COME ON.

The male characters

  • The incompetent but charming Prime Minister
  • The powerful cool dude executive who cheats on his wife
  • The violent brother whose mental illness confines him to an institution (I think? This ‘plotline’ is hazy.)
  • The hapless writer who seems barely able to dress himself let alone produce manuscripts
  • The hot Latino who…actually, I have no idea what
  • The heartbroken widow and father of World’s Cutest Boy
  • The top bloke who’s secretly in love with his best mate’s wife
  • The desperate loser who is obsessed with sex

Men are not this awful and stupid and desperate and deceitful and shallow (but if they are they still get to be rich and powerful and beloved).

Here are some basic questions:

Am I supposed to feel sorry for the chap who goes to America to get laid?

Why can’t the man with the disability have a personality or a believable relationship with his sister? I mean, this must have been possible at the writing stage, right?

What sort of pretentious moron uses a typewriter outside on a windy day?**

What kind of idiotic Prime Minister can’t use his powers to find out what house his crush lived in? And how did such an imbecile get elected?

And FYI, telling your best friend’s new wife that you’re in love with her (using twee flashcards) is about the most selfish, creepy, dick move imaginable and if she doesn’t tell her husband then I fear for their embryonic marriage.

The portrait of London/Britishness

I know we’re supposed to get all smooshy at Christmas and romanticise the working class and pretend we all live in the same tinselled, starlit London as the brochures but for goodness’ sake, no. And while we’re at it, let’s feel a little bit nauseated by all the ostentatious wealth on display and marvel at how the women are mostly working class and the men are largely middle class and in the case of the PM, literally ruling class. That’s not Britain. This isn’t It’s a Wonderful Life or even A Christmas Carol, because in those Yuletide classics, the big lesson is check your privilege. The big lesson in Love Actually is privilege and class and power are but trifles in the face of true love. Also, pretty much everyone in this London is white.

The exception to this is really the most beautiful love story of the entire film and that’s of Bill Nighy’s character and his manager. What a truly stunning little subplot that was, much more in keeping with the usual tenor of the Learn Something at Christmas school of filmic education. I also very much enjoy the porn actor stand-in story, as fleeting as it is, because it needed only to be small and perfectly formed, and it was.

The music

That insufferable Dido song the lyrics of which don’t fit the scene AT ALL, Maroon 5, the (admittedly lush and gorgeous) Beach Boys song with a truly terrible message to lovers everywhere (I’m nothing without you and I will love you forever NEVER LEAVE ME), the Santana song that the fellow from Matchbox 20 ruined and that band that sounds like Nickelback. And I KNOW Joni Mitchell is in the movie and she’s amazing and so is Emma Thompson and that scene is breathtaking. It is, it truly is. It’s the best thing in the movie. It would be good in any movie. It highlights to me what a terrible movie it appears in.

Also, a free pass for Mariah’s All I Want For Christmas because it’s pop perfection and used to clever effect for a non-verbal joke/moment of abject squee.

The legacy

And now Hollywood has started churning out these spurious, horrendous, offensive-even-to-call-them-films where they take a vague concept (usually a date), pack the film with celebrities and set it to a mixtape of Top 40 dreck and call it Valentine’s Day! Or New Years’ Eve! Or He’s Not That Into You And Actually Despises You! Or whatever the next atrocious attempt to make an American Love Actually will be called. And for that, Curtis should pay.

So next time you’re watching Love Actually (and you will, hell, I will) just remember that there are far better Christmas movies out there, with less problematic gender, race and class politics, better music, more interesting plots, and fewer ugly and boring cliches.*** But they won’t have Emma Thompson’s heart breaking to the strains of Joni Mitchell and maybe I will always go back for that.

 

* Sidebar – why are movies so obnoxiously LONG these days?
** One that deserves to lose all his papers in the lake. ALL OF THEM
*** Die Hard(s), Scrooged and A Charlie Brown Christmas are some of my favourites.

21 Responses to “No Actually”

  • This strikes me as (pretty well) entirely right, often beautifully put, and a great deal of it I would not have realised if it hadn’t been spelt out so well. Thanks so much for venting!

  • So perfectly articulated, thank you. I have only watched this once, in a cinema in London the year it was released and couldn’t wait to get out of there. I never want to watch that drivel again!

  • Richard Curtis not only writes terrible female characters – except for Alice in the Vicar of Dibley! (I’m an unashamed fan) – but terrible movies. The Boat that Rocked should be a crime. I can’t STAND his films. And why is Emma Thompson in them? Why? Why?

  • ‘FYI, telling your best friend’s new wife that you’re in love with her (using twee flashcards) is about the most selfish, creepy, dick move imaginable and if she doesn’t tell her husband then I fear for their embryonic marriage.’

    LOVE IT! Also love this piece, from pointing out the way the female characters are only there to serve the men to your tracing all the abominations of New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, etc. to this one film. So Richard Curtis is the one to blame …

  • With you 100%. We, 96% cos I love Notting Hill.

    Saw this once and never again. Mindless claptrap. It made me anngry when I saw it over Xmas in Byron Bay. When we left the cinema it was pouring and I thought the earth was protesting too.

    Love… Actually, just fuck off!

  • This is brilliant, and pretty much sums up how I feel about this movie. Especially the creepy best friend… the supposed “romance” in that baffles me. But like you, I’ll probably watch it again regardless… ;)

  • I can’t really get past the wedding video he makes. and Kiera is all like “it’s all of meeeeee” and he looks all guilty and it’s it sweetly devastating she’s the object of his affections etc etc IT’S A FURIOUS FAP TAPE. He takes himself and pumps it to her toothy face on her wedding day. NOT charming. GUHHH.

  • Wonderfully astute analysis, Karen, thank you.

  • Emma Thompson tucking the sheets into the corner of the bed and clenching her fists is a wondrous marvellous piece of acting. But as for the rest … especially the young boy and obnoxious American girl … they just emphasise how out of place that one scene is in this movie.

  • Fantastic article. I always found the guy being in love with his best mates wife particularly cloying. He’s presented as a paragon of virtue and restraint for feigning dislike for this woman, and we’re supposed to celebrate the fact that he goes behind his friends back to let her know how he feels. This man disrespects and visibly ignores his best mates girlfriend/wife, but that’s okay, it’s the only way he can control his feelings. Nonsense. The entire PM/tea girl thing was embarrassing to watch. Oh and THAT SPEECH, I found myself having to mute the end of this self congratulatory rubbish, and the subsequent scene where we’re forced to endure a dancing Hugh Grant. Shudder.

  • Really? Why not pick apart every other rom com and romantic novel and then state that writers have no place to make their characters their own.
    While the film is far from perfect, it’s not worth the vitriol from you.

    Perhaps write about something that actually matters, if you’re such a feminist.

  • Oh I agree with almost all of this, I really do, esp the absurd ‘industrial relations’ power discrepancies between the men and women, and most of the women generally. And the scene with Emma Thompson, my god. But. I have to put in a word for the best friend loving the new wife thing. I have been in that position exactly – loved by my partner’s best mate – and it was heartbreaking and secret and sad, and there is no way I will ever tell my partner. Anyone who thinks that’s a good idea must be a long way from such a situation. That scene with the flashcards broke my heart almost as much as Emma T, I have to say. There is something about the honesty of it, the mutual recognition of the hopelessness, and the outright courage of the man that rang very true to me. It’s not creepy or selfish; that’s a very cynical interpretation. It’s a cheesy filmic version of a sad situation.

  • Kate, if Karen were to pick apart every other problematic rom com and romantic novel, she’d be dead before she got to “F”.

    I get that you might like Love, Actually. Heck, you probably love it, actually. But your blind devotion to a pile of steaming turd doesn’t make it an off-limits topic for discussion. And I’m not sure I got the memo from Feminist Central where it told all of us we had to only write about Big Issue Shit. The film is ass. If you don’t like that opinion, why not go and read something you think matters?

  • Thanks everyone! After so many years it’s good to get it out! As you can see, there’s plenty I appreciate and even love about the film but mostly it has me shaking my head, and its cultivated popularity as a Christmas film especially irked me.

    And Kate, I’ll write about whatever I want because it’s my website!

  • Oh I agree with almost all of this, I really do, esp the absurd ‘industrial relations’ power discrepancies between the men and women, and most of the women generally. And the scene with Emma Thompson, my god. But. I have to put in a word for the best friend loving the new wife thing. I have been in that position exactly – loved by my partner’s best mate – and it was heartbreaking and secret and sad, and there is no way I will ever tell my partner. Anyone who thinks that’s a good idea must be a long way from such a situation. That scene with the flashcards broke my heart almost as much as Emma T, I have to say. There is something about the honesty of it, the mutual recognition of the hopelessness, and the outright courage of the man that rang very true to me. It’s not creepy or selfish; that’s a very cynical interpretation. It’s a cheesy filmic version of a sad situation.

  • This is brilliant, Karen. I’ve already emailed it to my Year 11 Literature class for next year and we are going to begin the year with this piece and ‘Love Actually’. I’ve told them if they can dissect any text half as well as this, I am going to be a happy little lady.

  • I have long been aware of just how dodgy most of Love Actually’s character tropes and themes are, and I agree with most of your analysis here whole heartedly. Despite the fact that it is a couple of hours of palatable faff that can be quite comforting when one needs to not think, it really has some screwed up tropes and themes in it.

    That said, the moments I love the most are those rare ones outside of the main swamp. Bill Nighy’s fucked up rocker and his dodgy manager. The moments of friendship between Emma and Liam’s characters. (Actually all of Emma, all of it, every bit, I just love her too much). Everyone being aware of Laura Linney’s crush on Karl the pretty Latino (aren’t crushes always that embarrassingly obvious?) Chiwitel Ejiofor (like Emma, I love him too much). The language barrier between Jamie and Aurelia where it is made apparent that she is quite aware of how clueless he is (he may be the great writer but she’s the brains of the pair!) These little moments are like little tasty rewards amongst the really flavourless comfort food of the rest of the movie.

    I just wish more people were aware of how dodgy the majority of it is!

  • There’s a deleted scene between Laura Linney and her disabled brother that was very touching. I can’t find it online, but they talk about their relationship and his illness (schizophrenia), and he tells her, “I’m in hell.” I wish it hadn’t been edited out, because as is, that storyline was the flimsiest and most baffling in the movie to me.

    Another deleted scene that might have brought some actual depth: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ao_heePixQ

  • “What kind of idiotic Prime Minister can’t use his powers to find out what house his crush lived in? And how did such an imbecile get elected?”

    Ha! Yes! How has this never occurred to me before! Although, obviously that would be far less interesting than the door-knocking sequence, and we wouldn’t get to hear his driver sing carols in that gorgeous deep voice.

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