Unpopular Opinion: LOVE ACTUALLY Is Both Lovely AND Terrible

A debate I’ve often seen flare up during the holiday season is whether Love Actually (2003) is a good movie. It seems people tend to fall in one of two camps: love it or hate it. I only recently watched the film for the first time a few years ago, after warring factions of my family wanted to know which side of the debate I’d fall on. Upon that first viewing, I primarily felt underwhelmed. I’d expected to feel confident in standing on one side of the line or the other, without a middle ground being possible. After all, I’d been hearing this impassioned back-and-forth from my loved ones for quite some time: “It’s fantastic! We watch it every year!” answered swiftly by, “It’s ridiculous! The characters are horrible people!”

Well, which is it? Unsatisfied by my earlier reaction (or lack thereof), I decided to watch it again this December and see if I felt something different, one way or the other.

I’m here to tell you today, with confidence, that both groups are correct. Love Actually is both lovely and terrible.

Spoiler alert for all that follows, in case you are, like I was, nearly 20 years late in seeing this film.

I took three pages of notes as I watched (nerd alert). I attempted to distinguish my notes as pros (with plus signs) and cons (with minus signs) as I accumulated them, but the two often overlapped or cancelled each other out in such striking ways that that very effort pointed me toward my conclusion early on, and it only proved increasingly true.

The IMDB description of the movie reads, “Follows the lives of eight very different couples in dealing with their love lives in various loosely interrelated tales all set during a frantic month before Christmas in London, England.”

It says a lot about this movie’s intertwined “pro” and “con” lists that my initial reaction to that description, even after having just watched the movie, was “Eight?!” As in, That’s a lot. But then I started counting and quickly came up with more than eight*. If I can’t even tell who counts as a couple whose lives viewers are following, the plot and cast may be a bit overcrowded.

The movie opens with a promising premise: “If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around,” Hugh Grant says in a voiceover. (I assume that’s supposed to be Grant as his character, David, the prime minister, although he does not return as any sort of narrative voice, nor as any more of a leading character compared to the many others.) This premise is illustrated in several effective ways throughout the movie: Daniel (Liam Neeson) and Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) navigating their grief over the death of Sam’s mother and bonding over Sam’s crush on his classmate; Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz) finding ways to communicate across their language barrier; and the charming, if somewhat unconventional, chemistry between David and his staff member Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), whose face glows whenever they interact.

It seems that many of the movie’s other storylines are working against that heartwarming premise, though: Colin (Kris Marshall)’s sole personality trait is that he has an urge to get laid, he believes he can achieve this by going to the United States, and it’s then proven true with such an over-the-top turn in his luck that we’re waiting for a punchline that doesn’t arrive; the US president (a particularly dirtbaggish Billy Bob Thornton) hits on / sexually harasses Natalie; and she then feels the need to apologize to David about it, both in her Christmas card and in person. And whom or what am I supposed to be rooting for when Harry (Alan Rickman), who is married to Karen (the incomparable Emma Thompson), is hit on for the umpteenth time by his sexually aggressive assistant? Do any of these really serve to demonstrate love being all around us? Attraction, maybe, or the complexities of relationships or of finding our way. These examples seem out of sync with the other storylines.

When it seems like viewers are meant to care so much for Karen, it’s a fair expectation that we should be building toward her triumph after she finds out about the necklace Harry purchased for the other woman. Instead, we get a (highly effective) scene of her allowing herself a brief cry in her bedroom before rejoining the family for the Christmas concert, another (also highly effective) scene in which she briefly gets to tell Harry off after the concert but then stops herself when the kids come back in, and then a flash-forward at the end of her greeting him at the airport with the kids in tow, their dialogue so stilted that it not only implies continued tension between them but leaves me lost as to whether they’re still together. (I think they are?! Even after her powerful line about “knowing life would always be a little bit worse.”)

Likewise, we’re rooting for Sarah (Laura Linney) to finally get with her office crush, Karl (Rodrigo Santoro), and the momentum builds adorably in that direction. When he comes over to her place, we get two of my favorite moments in quick succession: her happy dance in the stairwell, fists shaking in the air, while Karl stands waiting just on the other side of the wall, and subsequently her attempt to quickly throw her bedroom clutter into hiding, including, guiltily, her teddy bear. But then her cell phone rings, as it so often does, and interrupts their rendezvous; the obligations of her normal life take over (she’s a caregiver for her brother); and she never gets to return to the sweeping romance.

What’s the moral of storylines like Karen’s and Sarah’s? That sometimes life gets in the way of love? That sometimes you’re stuck settling for your “have to”s rather than aspiring for your “want to”s? This may be accurate to many people’s lived experiences, but the tone feels out of place in this movie. At least Sarah’s storyline demonstrates a different kind of love, the bond and instinctive caregiving among biological family. But it’s still terribly depressing. Yes, “life is full of interruptions and complications,” as Karl reassures Sarah, but are we supposed to take from this that sometimes the interruptions and complications win? Does Sarah have zero agency to carve out some bit of time for her own needs and wants? (And, seriously, she has the most obnoxious and unnecessarily loud ringtone of all time, amiright?)

There are so many utterly delightful moments throughout this movie:

  • My favorite: Natalie’s family heading out for the Christmas concert just as David arrives to profess his love. This leads to the couple sitting in the backseat of a car on either side of an impeccably straight-faced child dressed as an octopus, who interrupts their heartfelt conversation by proclaiming “We’re here!” and then exits the car in an endless crinkle of tentacles. (Bonus content: His character in the IMDB cast listing is named Natalie’s Octopus Brother.) This scene is so well written and delivered (“Keith will be very disappointed. …Eight is a lot of legs, David”) that I rewatched it several times and giggled out loud each time, on an airplane.
  • David’s dance montage, a joyful 40 seconds of total commitment that make him a more likeable and relatable character.
  • The flourish with which the jewelry store clerk (Rowan Atkinson) tackles each elaborate step of the gift-wrapping process, complete with spoonfuls of flower petals and a sprig of holly.
  • The crowd following Jamie through the town as he goes to find Aurelia, and his bumbling attempts at Portuguese as he declares his love for her. This is the good kind of ridiculousness that rom-com fans expect – heartfelt, endearing, and worthy of rooting for.
  • The earnestness of Sam’s crush, which he is adamant is true love (“the total agony of being in love”). Didn’t we all feel this way at some point about a childhood crush, that it certainly would stand the test of time, that our hearts and minds were clear on what we needed? “Another thing about romance is people only get together right at the very end,” Sam tells Daniel, reassuring them both that they can hold onto hope. Perhaps it’s largely because Brodie-Sangster’s massive brown eyes pierce right to the heart (does anyone else remember him, later, from Game of Thrones and thus get a thrill out of his appearance here as such an endearing baybay?), but I love his entire storyline, including learning the drums to impress his crush, his hand on the glass of the airport window as he tries desperately to call to her (“Joanna!”) (slight point deduction here for expecting us to believe that a boy could run so far through an airport in a post-9/11 world), the smile that encompasses his whole face after she kisses him. This is pure, joyful, not-yet-jaded-by-the-world love.

Likewise, there are so many utterly awful ones:

  • Karen telling a crying Daniel, “Get a grip. People hate sissies. No one’s ever gonna shag you if you cry all the time.” Is this supposed to be…funny? His wife just died. He’s worried about his stepson. It falls flat, at best, and makes an otherwise likeable Karen much less appealing.
  • Harry’s assistant wearing devil horns to the office’s Christmas party. I just can’t.
  • Don’t even get me started on the creepiness and poor execution of the crush that Mark (Andrew Lincoln, looking startlingly babyfaced for those of us used to seeing him on The Walking Dead) has on Juliet (Keira Knightley), newly married to Mark’s friend Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who shows up so briefly we don’t even get a chance to decide if we care about him at all. The cue-cards scene has been parodied so many times not because it’s cute but because it’s AWKWARD AS HELL. As is his entire attraction toward her. He’s always swinging around that video camera, then somehow later has a professionally edited montage of close-ups and slow-mo pans of Juliet’s face. He wants the crush to remain a secret and tells Juliet he doesn’t know where the wedding video is, yet he puts the VHS tape, clearly labeled, right on his living room shelf.

The movie tries to cover so much ground that, at this point in this lengthy blog, I haven’t even touched on a couple of the other storylines, which I’ll reduce to brief notes here:

Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) is obnoxious but mostly in a good way, and I like that he acknowledges the ridiculousness of reworking the former hit song “Love Is All Around” into “Christmas Is All Around,” thus also highlighting the commercialization of Christmas and the pressures of fame. This storyline is uneven and rushed (we very briefly learn at the end that perhaps there’s a romantic interest between Billy and his manager?! more of that, please!), but, all told, it’s in my “pro” column.

John (Martin Freeman, who I loved on the British version of The Office) and Judy (Joanna Page) are adorable as body doubles for movie sex scenes, finding they can chat comfortably and develop a trusting rapport in the midst of some hilariously awkward physical arrangements. Their shy self-consciousness is an amusing contrast to the work they do, and together it makes for an inviting vulnerability. And his leap off her front steps after they kiss is pure joy.

In total, the movie’s core is weakened by trying to do too much. Following so many characters makes it hard to keep them straight or to feel invested in them. Give me a remake that reduces the fluff (the Colin storyline and the Mark-Peter-Juliet storyline could be cut entirely) and delves deeper into the cursory storylines that have such potential (does Karen strike out on her own? does Sarah get another chance with Karl? how does Daniel and Sam’s relationship evolve as Sam grows up?). Or give me an entirely separate rom-com about Jamie and Aurelia or John and Judy. The bigger, clunky effort does a disservice to so many promising pieces that are reduced to glimmers among the crowd.

(*More than eight couples: David and Natalie, Jamie and Aurelia, Harry and Karen, Harry and his assistant, Sarah and Karl, Sam and Joanna, Mark and Juliet, technically speaking Peter and Juliet, Colin and his group pursuit, John and Judy, Billy Mack and his manager, plus the familial relationships between Daniel and Sam and Sarah and her brother.)

LOVE ACTUALLY movie poster
Photo obtained from Ron Cogswell, downloaded from Flickr; some rights reserved