I rented Love Actually last week and watched it with my girlfriend. The film, released at the theaters last year, was not even my fourth choice. But when one is in a relationship, one finds themselves having to make compromises. In this case, the compromise turned out to be a pleasant surprise – though my girlfriend did fall asleep halfway through.
Anyway, as I watched the fairly complex plot threads slowly weave their way towards a predictably syrupy conclusion, I found myself contemplating this film a bit more than expected. I’ll try to cover the bases without boring readers to death.
First and foremost, Love Actually boasts an extraordinary cast of actors, many of whom are from Britain, the location of this valentine of a movie. Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Laura Linney and Colin Firth, among others, lend an air of respectability to the mainly light proceedings. This ensemble piece examines eight varieties of relationships, all of them involving a form of love.
You have love between a father and son, love between a Prime Minister and house employee, love between a long-time married couple, love between co-workers, love between two long-time friends, love between porno stand-ins and love between a writer and housekeeper. I’m sure I missed a relationship somewhere in this very busy film. If so, forgive me.
Richard Curtis wrote and directed this romance/drama/comedy, and it was his first time behind the lens. His previous work included the charming screenplays to Four Weddings and a Funeral (a favorite of mine), Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’ Diary. After such notable success with the pen, I suppose it was about time for him to sit in the director’s chair. He does an adequate job with a fairly daunting screenplay. Not only must this story weave in and out of the lives of 10-20 individuals in modern-day London, but it must walk a fine line between comedy and drama, giving each notable actor enough screen time to flex their professional muscle.
Curtis wears his heart on his sleeve in Love Actually, and that is not always a good thing. The film is radically uneven, and does not necessarily come together with satisfying panache. He bats about .500, but when he does make a hit, it is indeed a home run.
The misfires are many, as the budding love between the already-mentioned porn stand-ins strikes the harmonious note of a wooden nickel. This talkative pair, in various forms of undress, pretend to perform lustful sex acts while cameramen set the lighting meters prior to the actual actors doing their “business.” The odd couple make a date and literally shiver during their first kiss. The symbolism is too obvious – yes Richard, we know lust and love are two entirely different things. The film comes to a standstill during these vignettes.
The slovenly Colin, played with nose-picking intensity by Kris Marshall, couldn’t find love if it punched him in the face. So the 20-something man decides to travel to America in search of drooling babes entranced by his British accent. Colin lands in snow-covered Milwaukee. Within minutes he finds three single models who take him back to their penthouse to have an apparent orgy. Granted, British accents are cute, but I’m not sure it’s going to give any man the inside track to winning the fantasy lottery. What this says about American women, I’m not entirely sure. But it’s not particularly funny and certainly has little to say about love.
Liam Neeson is terrific as a recently widowed father attempting to raise a young son on his own. By utilizing the power of positive thinking, he is lovingly supportive, and it’s just a wonderful turn by an actor who normally plays the “hunk.” I liked this vignette immensely and would enjoy seeing a film dealing simply with this father and son relationship – though perhaps we’ve seen it before in The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. The conclusion of their drama, taking place at the airport, is a bit fabricated. But as viewers we will find it difficult to abstain from cheering for the delightful chemistry between Liam and son.
Hugh Grant does a nice turn as the recently appointed Prime Minister of England who’s shot by the Cupid’s arrow when meeting the caterer of his new home. Grant goes to great lengths to deny his love for this lower middle-class woman. This vignette gives us one of the finest scenes in the film when Grant stumbles upon a Bill Clinton-like president of the United States (nicely played in a cameo by Billy Bob Thornton) trying to make a pass at the caterer. Grant’s character has already been bullied by this important world leader. Now the prez is making a move on the love of his life! Grant stands up to the powerful man during a press conference, and the enjoyable scene will make one swell with British pride whether they live in Olde England or not.
The strongest scenes in the film are delivered by Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, as a longtime married couple. Rickman is being flirted with by a young woman at work, and Thompson catches wind of it. Eventually Rickman samples a taste, and Thompson discovers this too. Her scenes where she deals with the infidelity are the most memorable of Love Actually. This very fine actress reveals the true trauma of what such shenanigans can do to the victim. She delivers the best line in the film when she says to her longtime husband, “You haven’t just made me look foolish, but you’ve made us look foolish.” The term “us” is not just referring to husband and wife, but to their children as well. It is a dramatically profound moment, striking the emotional truth of the pain of infidelity. Thompson’s work is nothing short of brilliant.
There are other vignettes shedding interesting light on the messy equation of love. What I liked about Love Actually was it dealt exclusively with ADULT romance. Amazingly, there’s not a teenager in sight. This is also such a sweet, life-affirming film, without a single moment of cynicism. To me, that’s rare in today’s movie making world.
Love Actually stumbles happily to the semi-truth of life and love and how we cope with all the mundane bullshit. Love happens when we least expect it, and this film is aware of this. Love is not always fulfilled, and this film knows this sad fact as well. Love Actually accurately reveals that the love of husband, wife, lover, friend, brother, sister, son and daughter is what makes this life of ours worth living. Thank you Mr. Curtis for at the very least attempting to reveal such an important lesson.
The opening line defines Love Actually’s spirit best –
“When the planes hit the twin towers, as far as I know none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. And if you look for it, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that love actually is all around.”
Thankfully, there’s only one wedding scene in Love Actually and it’s early in the film. After the bride and the groom have exchanged vows, they begin walking back down the aisle. Suddenly, a choir begins singing, trombone players stand up, someone plays a guitar and a man wails into a microphone. The bride and groom laugh in surprised delight as the musicians begin performing The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love.”
Has there ever been a more perfect song for a wedding? Cheers.