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.
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.
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.