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

A CHRISTMAS STORY: A Guidebook for Nostalgic Narratives

There are several movies I make a point of watching every year at Christmas time, in a rather ritualistic honoring of my childhood — one of which, A Christmas Story, stands out largely because it shares my reverence for nostalgia. In fact, part of the reason I love this movie is because my grandpa, who passed away when I was a junior in high school, loved it, and we’d always turn on the 24-hour TNT marathon when we were at my grandparents’ house on Christmas. But I also love it because of how its story is crafted and what it continues to teach me about good storytelling.

The magic of Jean Shepherd’s writing (in the screenplay and its source material, his 1966 book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash) as well as his narration of the movie is that, both as a kid and as an adult, it feels like the narrator is speaking to you in a way that resonates. When I was a kid, adult Ralphie’s narrative voice talked about his childhood in a way that implied he understood me — like he was acknowledging that all kids were in on a secret together. He accurately represented the wants and needs of “kiddom.” We shared the perspective that all of the adults in the movie (Ralphie’s parents, his teacher, even Santa) simply don’t “get it” and are being unfair by denying him his coveted Red Ryder BB gun, the thing he wants most for Christmas. Somehow, the risk of shooting his eye out sounds not terrifying to a child viewer but ridiculously overprotective. Viewing the movie as an adult, I see all too easily that Ralphie’s eager enthusiasm to own that gun —influenced partially by successful marketing and partially by jealousy that his friend Flick is getting one — blinds him to the very real risks involved. Further, I can relate to the parents’ various stressors (even without being a parent myself) — the chaotic pace of the holiday season, the cooking, the broken furnace, the blown-out tire — and settle with them into the simple comfort of watching the snow fall through the tree-lit window, wine glasses in hand, after a tiring day.

Catering to both childhood and adulthood, and blurring the lines between the two realms, surely plays a large part in the movie’s continued growth in popularity over several decades, allowing it to appeal to all ages. It also functions as a key element of the movie’s plot. Ralphie’s mother often reaches across the adulthood-childhood boundary as a calming counterpoint to his father’s temper: asking picky-eater Randy to show her “how the piggies eat,” shouting out “Jingle Bells” with the kids in the car, comforting Randy with a glass of milk and gently closing the door to his kitchen-cupboard hideout, covering for Ralphie about his displaced glasses after he gets in a fistfight. But this theme is most powerfully illustrated by the pivotal Christmas morning scene when Ralphie finally gets his beloved rifle. There is a simple beauty in the giddy, almost nervous smile that twitches on The Old Man’s face as he watches Ralphie tear into the wrapping paper, the way he moves his fingers as if loading the rifle himself, experiencing anew a moment that was so significant in his own childhood. In that moment, the divide between kiddom and adulthood that seemed so vast for much of the movie is collapsed, morphing into a shared joy and, thereby, an understanding.

The task at hand for this narrative style is to talk about childhood with the benefit of perspective gained over time, without diminishing what’s sacred about the childhood experience. The narrator has to embody both simultaneously: to recall the joys, worries, and pains of childhood so vividly that we feel the blows Ralphie lets loose on Scut Farkas, Randy’s inability to put his arms down, the delicate “nuance of phrase” in the double- and triple-dare ritual — but with the wisdom that can only be gained by years more of living, providing a frame in which to display those childhood experiences and analyze them fully.

A couple of my favorite lines illustrate this approach well:

“I went out to face the world again, wiser”

— this after the letdown of using his secret decoder pen to uncover an advertisement for Ovaltine. That last word, “wiser,” is not kid Ralphie’s interpretation but adult Ralphie’s, reflecting back on how the experience shifted his worldview. Kid Ralphie just felt disappointed and annoyed. (“A crummy commercial?”) Adult Ralphie knows how that disappointment, after such feverish anticipation, was significant enough to last and color his expectations of future promises.

“The light was getting purple and soft outside — almost time for my father to come home from work.”

I love that Shepherd describes the time of day this way, rather than saying, “It was 5:00.” It makes sense that a child would recognize that powerful image of the changing sky as indicative of his father’s impending arrival home, particularly on that day as he anticipated getting in trouble for fighting Farkas. It’s also precisely the kind of image likely to stick with him into adulthood and stay closely tied to the emotions of those earlier years.

As I hope soon to publish a personal essay I’ve written about the most formative friendship of my childhood, the Christmas Story narrative runs through my head as a prime example of this delicate task, working to merge those two such important perspectives: who I was at 11 and who I am now at 34. The intersection of the two — what I still carry with me from those playground days and what I only know of them now that I’ve lived a couple decades more — is where that aforementioned magic can happen.

I’m excited to share here an excerpt from that essay, which tells the origin story of my sixth-grade girl gang, as we savored a sudden rush of popularity and struggled to bear it responsibly. It’s important to note, as explained later in the manuscript, that we pronounced the name “my girls” — but we spelled it with an “i” because it looked cute.

The MiGirls [an excerpt]

The girls and I had already become known as a unit, but one particular afternoon cemented us as something of a legacy that reached beyond our own classroom’s walls. It was early autumn. I recall the light on the playground as having a golden hue, near sepia; it seems appropriately solemn for the occasion, so I like to tell myself it’s accurate. Regardless of the lighting and the tricks time plays on the weight of things, that day was bursting with a sense of possibility. I had come to cherish the knowledge that I was someone who could make things happen, whose voice mattered for whatever naïve, trivial reasons to those around me, and on that day I felt an urge to make good use of it.

Harper had been lurking around our tree for days, like a raccoon staking out the potential for some good loot. Creeping ever closer to where we sat in the shade, in a circle so compact our knees were touching, she seemed to be watching for the right moment to enter the ring, as if our comfortable routine were a game of Double Dutch. Listening in on our conversations was the norm, but this was more of a direct, offensive move. Rather than acting as if she were merely passing by as she mumbled to herself, she continued to saunter nearer, staring. Her eyes were always so wide and piercing; they gave me the disconcerting feeling she was just barely holding back some form of hysterics. Typically, our whispered crush confessions and giggle fits would trail off as we tried to pretend we weren’t affected by her encroaching presence, and she would soon get bored and move on. That day, though, we couldn’t seem to shake her, and the girls were insistent that I say something. They made pointed eye contact with me, gesturing subtly in Harper’s direction; there seemed to be an unspoken understanding that I should address the problem.

Harper, too, pegged me as the one: as she ventured closer, she warbled my name and beckoned with a finger that looked genuinely witch-like. What was this quality I was emitting that portrayed me as some sort of leader? I had never knowingly displayed a desire to speak for the pack. Now that the opportunity was there, though, staring me down like a dare my inner critic knew I wouldn’t take, I felt a rush akin to what I assumed being drunk must feel like. I walked away from the tree to talk with her, maybe 20 paces out. Open territory, public territory. Not our hallowed space. Away from its shelter, my composure wavered. Trying to be subtle about it, I took a slow, deep breath as I approached her, the crisp air burning my throat.

“What?” I asked flatly. I tried to evoke an effortless confidence.

She wanted to know if we could try being friends again. Even then, her view of the matter struck me as odd: she saw a friendship as something you could force. Just keep pushing until the pieces fit together.

The other three girls appeared behind me tentatively, like deer approaching a roadway.

As we rattled off the evidence against her like prosecuting attorneys, a small crowd began to gather, 15 or 20 kids, from our class and others. This rivalry had become well known. There was something thrilling about realizing that our peers talked about us, amidst their otherness, their own crafts tables and bus lines.

I wasn’t looking to be cruel; there was simply a palpable, urgent need to be rid of this topic. The dance of tenuous friendship had already been through several exhausting rounds over the previous few years; she was always looking to be absolved for her wrongdoings, though not able to assure they wouldn’t be repeated. For every point we presented that day about her past deceptions, she offered a groundless counterpoint. She wanted us simply to trust her that things would be better moving forward, but there was no trust established as a foundation. The crooked grin on her face the entire time she talked implied that she didn’t even believe herself. She was like a salesman looking to close the deal on a crappy product.

“Let me talk with my girls,” I said as I turned, luxuriating in the slow torture of it, the surge of power. I think we all knew there was no further discussion to be had. I took my time walking away, the other girls falling in line like a school of fish. I think I even put my arms around them, something I felt Rizzo might do with the Pink Ladies, complete with hip-swagger and gum-snap. (We had just watched Grease for the first time during a sleepover, so the feel of it was fresh in my mind. We had been enthralled by it, swooning over John Travolta’s combination of coy sensitivity and an oozing sexuality we didn’t yet quite understand.)

As I said it, I placed a slight, but significant, emphasis on “my girls,” highlighting the honorable selectivity of the classification. It was a moment that would live in blissful notoriety among our peers, verbalizing the bond that had long been observed and respected. I had unknowingly formalized an unwritten rule: the four of us were to be understood, consulted, and revered as a single entity. We were made stronger through our unity, and we were not to be crossed. We were a sisterhood that felt like a legend in the making. We were the MiGirls.

In posting this, I send the happiest of holiday wishes to you all, with hopes for a brighter, calmer, healthy 2021. May your dreams on this Christmas be your equivalent of Ralphie’s spectacular hip shots.

Photo by Elly Fairytale, downloaded from Pexels