LOVE ACTUALLY (Richard Curtis, Britain, 2003, 2)
Why did I even bother to see LOVE ACTUALLY? Upbeat heartwarming chick-flick romances are not my favorite genre, but even if they were … good gawd, is this fat hunk of English toffee sweet. It is so relentless in its desire to be upbeat and happy and uplifting and “the feel-good film of the year” that I was reaching for the insulin. This is the kind of movie that makes you want to go out and kick a baby or strangle a puppy to de-treaclify your system. It’s like Ren & Stimpy’s “Happy Happy Joy Joy” song, only played straight.
LOVE ACTUALLY has about 10 romance-plot strands, brushing lightly off one another — Hugh Grant as Prime Minister, suppressing his hots for a staffer; Colin Firth falling for the Portuguese maid with whom he can’t speak; Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman as a married couple, with Rickman sorely tempted at work; Laura Linney unable to connect with the guy she has a crush on at work; Bill Nighy as an old star recording a Chrtistmas hit; a British loser goes to America because all the chicks are hot and love a British accent; two nude body doubles; a man has an unrequited crush on his best friend’s wife; Liam Neeson plays a stepfather whose 11-year-old son has his first crush shortly after his mother dies; meanwhile, Neeson pines for Claudia Schiffer. (I may be forgetting, or repressing, some others.)
If that sound like too much for a 130-minute movie, you’re absolutely right. Some pruning away was needed. The individual plots are completely underdeveloped (avg: half a sitcom episode each) and thus nothing gets a chance to surprise us. Every last frickin one of those threads end happily — OK with maybe one kinda exception. But that’s the one that doesn’t get tied up well at the end — making the film’s last 20 minutes a truly toxic piling on of one more coming-together, one more reconciliation, one more successful meeting. The fact that eight different plot strands are all being resolved happily one after another after another (and in two different public meetings) makes it seem even more relentless and grimaceworthy than it might otherwise.
It’s bad enough that an engagement between two people who can hardly speak a common language is treated as a great triumph worthy of triumphal trumpets on the soundtrack, but having Liam Neeson get together with Claudia Schiffer is just Cruelty to Audiences. Even getting a kiss from an unavailable love is treated as cathartic (imagine Emilio Estevez driving away from the snow cabin in ST. ELMO’S FIRE for a sense of the emotional falseness of this movie). And when LOVE ACTUALLY has a church funeral, as dictated by The Hugh Grant Romance Template, it’s for someone we had never seen alive, so there’s no emotional investment (death is SUCH a downer; like the Director said in THE PRODUCERS: “The whole third act has got to go; they’re *losing* the war.”). But more than that, the dearly departed supposedly prepared a snapshot video of her life to “Bye-Bye Baby,” a piece of Bay City Rollers bubble gum. I didn’t imagine that even the Church of England was that liturgically advanced. The whole script is like MAGNOLIA as rewritten by Up With People and Norman Vincent Peale.
I can already hear the objections — “Victor, this is a romantic fantasy. It’s not meant to be realistic.” Except that LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE AND ACTUALLY EVEN MORE LOVE tells you the opposite right away. It begins with pictures of people hugging and a narrator telling us that “love actually is all around us” and says you see it most clearly at the arrival gate at Heathrow. And the film ends with several of the plot strands coalescing at that airport terminal, and then the film subtly goes from its characters hugging and smiling and to those “real people” doing the same, and then a greater and greater number fill the screen. This film could not be more explicit in telling us it is a slice of life, something real, and that is simply an evil lie. Unless one’s idea of a slice of life is for a British dork to show up at the first bar he finds in Milwaukee, be surrounded by four supermodel-lookers who insist he stay over at their place. But unfortunately they’re so poor they only have a single bed and cannot afford any nightclothes and so they have to sleep naked (I am exaggerating not at all … I was actually ready for the film to reveal “it’s all a dream” because it’s SO over-the-top that you can’t even take it seriously as a fantasy). But no. That is not a plot strand, it’s a beer commercial. Or a sketch on “The Man Show,” which at least knows it’s parodic. This film is what Pauline Kael called “the sugar-coated lie” that drove her into a frenzy of hate about THE SOUND OF MUSIC. I’m not saying every movie has to be Ingmar Bergman or GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS … but couldn’t LOVE ACTUALLY have at least a couple of endings that somehow suggest that life is not perfect.
Then there’s one scene, in which Grant upbraids a visiting American president (Billy Bob Thornton as a Bushclinton horndog-yokel) for selfishness and bullying, that reportedly produced (predictable) cheers at the Toronto Film Festival. Now leave aside the scene’s basic absurdity — two heads of govenment do not dress one another down at a public press conference — which tends to code it as fantasy, i.e. wish fulfillment. But what also justifies calling the scene purely anti-American (rather than anti-this-or-that American policy) is its terminal vagueness. No American policy is mentioned … not Iraq, steel tariffs, Kyoto, the Confederate flag, any number of The Usual Suspects … no, none, nothing — only airy platitudes about “standing up for our interests,” without any idea about what the filmmakers think those interests are. (Wouldn’t a president and a prime minister mention this or that policy beyond “we’ll do what we want”?) So this makes the scene the equivalent of a meaningless generic insult of a person, rather than saying, e.g. they’re lazy, stupid, dishonest — or any number of insults that specific referents. The scene is just the equivalent of “America is an asshole.” And that’s anti-Americanism as such.
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