Love Actually: Watching the Film for the First Time

Last night I watched Love Actually for the first time.

I’ve had it on DVD since forever — I bought pre-owned from the EB Games store I managed back in 2005; I still had the price stickers with the date we took it back in trade inside the case — and I’ve never watched it. I may have watched the beginning, as Bill Nighy trying to sing the lyrics to “Christmas Is All Around” and screwing it up, was familiar to me, but nothing else about the film was.

Love Actually DVD coverWhy last night? For one thing, it’s reputedly a “Christmas classic,” largely by virtue of taking place at Christmas time, a low bar that even Batman Returns easily surmounts. Mainly, though, my friends seem to fall into two groups — one that loves the film without reservation, one that despises the film without mercy. Then I read an article about the film yesterday — the thesis was that one of the characters was a sex robot — and I decided that was so weird that I needed to have an informed opinion about the film. I watched the film. I even watched the deleted scenes, complete with writer/director Richard Curtis’ introductions. If I were going to watch the film, I was going to get the whole experience.

My opinion? Love Actually is a very well-made terrible film. It’s not as sexually problematic as Curtis’ About Time was, but that’s a low bar to clear and not a reason to commend Love Actually.

For something that billed itself as “The Ultimate Romantic Comedy,” I didn’t find a lot of amusement in it. Rowan Atkinson as the jewelry salesman, now that was a funny bit, especially as someone who has worked retail and dealt with anxious and rushed customers at Christmas. I was somewhat charmed by the end of the Colin Firth story. Hugh Grant going up and down the street looking for his dismissed assistant’s home was amusing in that amusing Hugh Grant way. And though it wasn’t funny, the Liam Neeson/Thomas Brodie-Sangster story was nice. I generally even liked Emma Thompson’s storyline, which also wasn’t particularly comedic.

What I didn’t like…

  • The horny douchebag who goes to Wisconsin to have an orgy with a bunch of strangers. Really, what was the point of that? Why did the movie waste any time on it? It doesn’t connect with any of the central plots of the film. The assembly cut of the film was 3 and a half hours, and Curtis struggled to get it down to a watchable level. This entire plotline could have been excised. Boom, there’s fifteen minutes.
  • The Keira Knightley plotline. The actual wedding was charming, with the band popping up everywhere to play “All You Need Is Love.” “That’s really sweet,” I thought. After that, it’s about a stalkerish creep who gets rewarded with a kiss for being a stalkerish creep. I could ask the same questions I asked of the horny douchebag storyline — the story doesn’t connect with any of the characters in other plots, so why waste the time on it? I understand that it was supposed to connect more closely — the stalker owns (or works in) the gallery where Alan Rickman has his Christmas party and he knows the other woman in the Rickman storyline — but in the released film it doesn’t connect elsewhere in a meaningful way and becomes a superfluous waste of time.
  • The Colin Firth story, believe it or not, despite finding the ending of it somewhat charming. The story is cute, don’t get me wrong, but it also doesn’t intersect with the other stories. And the “We hate you, Uncle Jamie” scene — were these people we were supposed to know? Were we supposed to care about this? In the film as edited, it wasn’t the right scene to get the story back to the Portuguese maid in France. And, unfortunately, the lack of connection to other characters makes it superfluous.
  • The Martin Freeman story, though interesting in an absurdist sort of way — two body doubles for movie sex scenes find love on the movie set — had the common problem of being disconnected from the other storylines. Why are we investing time on this? Did they know any of the other characters? They’re at the Christmas pageant at the end, but just because they’re there it doesn’t mean they matter or are signifcant to the larger plotlines.
  • Alan Rickman. I don’t buy his storyline because, even as late as the Christmas party, he seems wholly oblivious to Mia’s obvious lust for him. And even when he leaves to go Christmas shopping with Emma Thompson, when Mia tells him to buy her something, he is basically, “Why?” That’s not being flirtatious and cryptic. That’s being, “What planet are you on?” If there were problems in the Rickman/Thompson marriage that made Rickman open to cheating (or, at a minimum, contemplate cheating) on his wife, the film doesn’t give us even a hint at that. Rickman, in the few scenes we see of him with Thompson, appears to be a loving husband and devoted father. There is so much of this story missing that it’s difficult to accept.
  • Hugh Grant as (essentially) David Cameron. (He’s not Cameron, obviously, but he’s clearly a Tory; he keeps a portrait of Margaret Thatcher in his office.) Let me be clear — Grant’s performance is a delight. I enjoyed Grant in this role. My problem is, what was the great issue between Britain and America? (And I don’t mean a smarmy Billy Bob Thornton appearing to make a move on his assistant.) What is this great political crisis? What is the issue? I wanted to know more about that. Because without that, it comes across as Grant forces a diplomatic crisis with the United States because he thinks he saw Billy Bob horndogging on his crush rather than as a genuine difference of opinion between the transatlantic allies. There’s a really interesting story lurking here in the background, and Curtis completely ignores it.

Conceptually, I think I understand what Richard Curtis wanted to do with Love Actually — he wanted to do a supercut of a bunch of different romantic comedies and stuff them into one single film. I admit there are interesting story fragments scattered throughout Love Actually. Most probably couldn’t support a film of their own; I probably wouldn’t watch a film about the numbskull who goes off to Wisconsin to have a sex party with a bunch of total strangers, and Keira Knightley as a newlywed who’s the object of lust by her husband’s best friend probably wouldn’t have a lot of appeal to me, either. But there are really too many fragments for this film to support; it wanders down pointless tangents, wasting time so that none of the stories can stand on their own. The stories have beginnings and ends, but there aren’t a lot of middles because there isn’t room for the middles. If they were ever filmed, they were edited out. Some filmmakers, like Terrence Malick, find their films in the editing room, junking entire plotlines and hours of footage. Love Actually, conversely, was lost in the editing room. In attempting to keep as much of his vision as possible, Curtis sabotaged his own film.

I could see the outlines of a good film in Love Actually. If I were editing this film — I would pare it down to the Grant, Thompson/Rickman, and Neeson storylines. I’d make Neeson’s late wife Joanna the younger sister of Grant and Thompson, rather than have Neeson and Thompson as friends. There would be more room to develop each storyline properly, so there would be more depth to Grant as the Prime Minister, more grounding for the martial state of Thompson and Rickman as well as insight into the parenting of their children, and more bonding between Neeson and Brodie-Sangster. (I did find myself wondering where Brodie-Sangster’s mother was, since Neeson was his stepfather.) The result would be a much stronger film, a much more focused film. We would have more time with a smaller cast of characters, and we would have more time to care about them and their problems. More importantly, we would have time for actual conflict, and conflict is what drives drama.

I can see why people love the film. Love Actually is well-made, there are lots of interesting actors. Sometimes they even get to do interesting things. But it’s a very problematic film, a film that doesn’t work, and that’s why I didn’t care for it.

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