The movie opens at Heathrow Airport with real scenes of reunions, and a voiceover from Hugh Grant saying, “General opinion [is] starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. … If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.”
And the subtlety ends there. Love Actually has never heard of the rule “show, don’t tell,” and that’s clear throughout the movie. For example, Bill Nighy’s character Billy Mack is a rock’n’roll icon past his prime, and his love story revolves around his friendship with his manager Joe. Instead of letting the audience come to that obvious conclusion, the movie has spell it out by having Bill Nighy say the line, “You turn out to be the fucking love of my life.”
Love Actually is too obsessed with aesthetics to do anything but scratch the surface of its theme. The relationship between John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page), who are body doubles for sex scenes, is Love Actually going, “Look at how cute it is that these two actors are perfectly comfortable being naked on the job but are shy in real life!” Their storyline isn’t funny, realistic, or meaningful, and it’s a complete waste of time. The other storyline that took away more than it added in comedic value was Colin’s (Kris Marshall) trip to the United States so he could have sex with American girls. His airtime could have been used to improve other storylines.
Love Actually loves how love looks, but it’s not too concerned with how love feels, and its attempts at romance were definitely the most troubling aspects of the movie. Mark (Andrew Lincoln) professes his feelings for his best friend’s new wife Juliet (Keira Knightley) with messages written on posters. I think they were supposed to be cute, but all I could think about during that scene was the inappropriate, astronomical secret he was making her keep from her husband.
On top of that, the movie makes Jamie (Colin Firth) write his novel with a typewriter, all so Jamie and Aurelia, his Portuguese housekeeper, can have their moment from The Notebook. When the pages (which, of course, he hasn’t made copies of) fly into the lake, Aurelia strips down into her underwear and jumps into the water to try and save them. I was 6 years old in 2003, but I’m pretty sure desktops existed.
Love Actually was too focused on fulfilling the requirements of its genre – being funny and romantic – to reflect on the frivolous stories it was telling. It’s difficult to comment on something that was probably funny in 2003 but not funny any more; still, I didn’t appreciate the jokes about his aide/romantic interest Nathalie’s (Martine McCutcheon) weight, and they single-handedly ruined the ending. The climax of the movie is the nativity play, where everyone is finally getting together and the world is righting itself. After all, it’s a romantic comedy—it’s supposed to be heartwarming and end happily ever after. I was honestly buying into the moment until the Prime Minister and Nathalie’s onstage kiss ended and he said, “God, you weigh a lot!”
The worst part was that some storylines started out well and just missed the mark. Sarah (Laura Linney) finally gets together with her crush Karl (Rodrigo Santoro), and they go back to her place. The more important relationship is between Sarah and her brother, who is mentally ill and calls her all the time on her cellphone. He interrupts Sarah and Karl while they’re hooking up, twice, causing Karl to become upset about Sarah’s commitment to her brother and leave. Instead of addressing some heavy material, like how much Sarah has given up to take care of her brother (which was definitely possible without forfeiting the genre), the movie’s focus turns the story into how Sarah and Karl couldn’t have an adult conversation about their relationship.
The couple that could have had the most impact were the comfortable, long-married Karen (Emma Thompson) and Harry (Alan Rickman), but it fails to resonate with the audience because they never wrapped up their storyline. Harry is repeatedly hit on by an employee at work, Mia (Heike Makatsch), and rather than ignore or fire her, he dances with her at their work Christmas party and buys her a necklace. Karen finds the necklace at home and assumes it’s for her, but when it comes time for presents she’s heartbroken to open a Joni Mitchell CD, realizing the necklace was for someone else. “Would you wait around to find out if it’s just a necklace, or if it’s sex and a necklace, or if, worst of all, it’s a necklace and love? Would you stay, knowing life would always be a little bit worse? Or would you cut and run?” she asks her husband. This is the most poignant part, the most relevant, realistic relationship in the movie, and we never find out how it ends.
The most heartwarming story is that of Daniel (Liam Neeson) and his stepson Sam (Thomas Sangster) after the death of Sam’s mother. They slowly recover together and bond over Sam’s effort to get the girl he likes from school to notice him. The best part was when Daniel called Sam “son” and Sam replied with “Dad” when the movie had started with Sam calling him “Daniel,” without anyone going “HEY DID YOU SEE THAT THEY LOVE EACH OTHER!” It was moments like these that convinced me Love Actually knew how to do a better job and take a nuanced approach to their theme. But then they ended the story with Daniel meeting Claudia Schiffer at Sam’s Christmas play, because a meaningful stepfather-stepson relationship wasn’t enough.
Whether you can make a meaningful statement about actual love in a romantic-comedy set at Christmas is a different debate, but I felt that some storylines had potential, and they just failed to live up to it.
The nine distinct storylines are all connected somehow, and this is supposed to give the feeling that the world is small. Instead, it was hard to keep track of how the characters were related to each other, and made the movie too busy and crowded. “Because it’s Christmas” is used multiple times as a reason to be in a relationship, and that’s a cheap cop-out on character development. Love Actually is too preoccupied with presentation to do anything but scratch the surface of its theme, and instead of exploring feelings, it merely throws them at you.
So if you’re looking for a feel-good Christmas movie this holiday season, allow me to recommend my favourite: the cartoon version of How The Grinch Stole Christmas.