[4.8/10] What if you managed to wrangle a host of England’s finest actors, and threw them into a movie devoted almost entirely to the meaning of Christmastime and love, with a horrible, arguably repugnant understanding of both? As Love Actually itself predicts through the story of its aging rocker cashing in on a turgid cash-in X-mas album, that turd would become a venerable number one hit.
Love Actually is an embarrassment, a bit of holiday hokum suitable only to lull you to sleep after large doses of eggnog and honey ham. That is, perhaps, a little too harsh a pronouncement. When the film tries to be something other than adult romance -- whether it’s parental encouragement, sibling comfort, or simply friendship -- it is cute at worst and heartwarming at best. But when it tries to spin tales of actual romantic love between grown-ups, it lays the film’s horrid ethics, thin romcom tropes, and sexist leanings bare.
So let’s alternate between the two and attempt to uncover the best and worst of this misguided but seemingly unkillable film in the process.
The most prominent offender is the Hugh Grant plot. (Fair warning, I’m going to refer to these vignettes by performer rather than by character name, since that’s about as much thought as the film put into the characters.) The story, which stars Grant as England’s Prime Minister and Martine McCutchen as the assistant he falls in love with, can basically be summed up as “What if we did the Monica Lewinsky scandal, except played it as romantic?” and is pretty much that wrong-headed throughout.
The film at least commendably tries to distance itself from that sort of thing, making Hugh Grant single and caking the whole thing in meetcute energy. But it’s emblematic of all the things that make this movie’s romantic leanings so repugnant. For one thing, it’s focused on a power imbalance between the romantic leads, that is only obviated when the Prime Minister fires (or “redistributes”) the girl he’s crushing on after he’s caught her making out with the American president, in a bit so ridiculous and contrived, all the film can do with it is make it the motivation for Hugh Grant to find his backbone as a leader, as dumb a dramatization of implicit sexual harassment as you’re likely to find.
But it’s fine, you see, because Hugh Grant loves his assistant despite the fact that she isn’t rail thin, and we’re supposed to admire him for this “I love my curvy wife” affection. It’s part and parcel with the raft of idiotic fat-shaming in the movie, from the multiple unnecessary comments about McCutchen’s size, to the Portuguese father in Colin Firth’s story bitching about his overweight daughter, to Bill Nighy’s continued references to his “fat manager.”
At least Bill Nighy’s behavior as washed up rockstar Billy Mack is framed as bad behavior, and maybe that’s why Nighy’s plot goes down smoother than some others. There’s a teenage boy perspective to this whole movie, and that finds more purchase under the mantle of an aging rockstar than it does to any sort of romantic feelings between adults. Watching Nighy misbehave in the guise of promoting his new turd of a Christmas cash-in to hit #1 on the charts is one of the more entertaining threads throughout the film. And Bill realizing that his best friend, and the person he loves most in the world, is the manager he’s been jostling with in the lead-up to the holidays, manages to wring the slightest modicum of heart out of the plot, even if, like most other bits in the film, the ending manages to squeeze in treating women like disposable objects.
Speaking of which, the absolute dumbest bit in the film is Colin, the libidinous pick-up artist who’s convinced that American girls would fall all over him, and travels to Wisconsin over the holidays to prove himself right. The whole story has the maturity and romantic POV of an American Pie movie, and the contrived, cartoonish way that women in the USA stumble over themselves to bring him into a foursome and are ready to jump into bed with anything speaking the Queen’s English is foolish at best and gross at worst.
And yet somehow, the most wholesome storyline in the episode is the one where the soon-to-be couple spends most of the film naked. The story of Martin Freeman and Joanna Page, who play sex scene stand-ins with no qualms about chatting in the buff on screen but feel shy and retreating in normal situations, manages to take a ribald premise and actually make it cute. It’s telling that the most normal-seeming, even-keel romance Love Actually can muster is built on the fact that two people who have every opportunity to be attracted to one another on a physical level instead connect on a personal level.
That’s a mirror image of Colin Firth’s storyline, where after finding his wife cheating on him with his brother, his character (a writer) retreats to a french vacation house to recover. There, he meets a hired housekeeper named played by Lúcia Moniz, who only speaks portuguese and whom he’s generally indifferent to. Then, all of a sudden, he sees her strip down to her underwear (with the film careful to pan across her body in slow motion) and magically he is in love. The film tries to paper over this, conveying that there’s a nigh-spiritual connection between them as they express the same feelings even though they can’t understand one another. And there’s an O. Henry-esque finish with the duo each learning the other’s language in order for a spur-of-the-moment proposal to work. But in the end, it’s another power imbalance with Firth deciding that his housekeeper, who doesn't speak his language, is hot, and the film shifting into rapidly implausible romcom mode to try to not only justify it, but make it sweet, to few returns.
The best the film can manage, and really what it coasts on the whole way through, is due to the talent of actors like Firth, who make these absurd and frankly repugnant situations have the faintest patina of humanity to them. That’s the saving grace of the story where Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson play a married couple, where Thompson discovers Rickman’s wandering eye. It’s one of the more down-to-earth, non-saccharine stories in the film, which bolsters it, and Thompson in particular wrings the comedy, pathos, and relief her character experience at various point. But even here, the plot is bogged down by the third member of the love triangle being another power-imbalance secretary whose only purpose or character in the film is to be Rickman’s seductress, replete with even more gratuitous lack of clothing. There’s an extended, not especially funny interlude from Rowan Atkinson that feels dissonant, and the climax of the plot, what should be its high point of a confrontation, bottoms out with an overblown, overly dramatic exchange between Rickman and Thompson rather than something that feels more grounded and real.
That’s something only managed by Laura Linney, whose character in enamored with a handsome co-worker, but whose romantic life is all but scuttled by her mentally ill brother, whose unfortunately-timed phone calls require her to pause her life to look after him. It’s another story here that succeeds by not being focused on romance, and instead on a filial love, that’s bolstered by the twinge of tragedy and realness to it that isn’t realized nearly as well in Thompson/Rickman infidelity plot. The film still goes big at times with the timing of the brother’s phone calls or his behavior in the hospital, but it’s founded on the hardship for Linney of sacrificing her love life for the good of a sick family member, but also the corresponding joy and warmth she’s able to wring from looking after someone she cares about.
That’s the opposite tone the film strikes when trying to depict impossible love in the Keira Knightley/Andrew Lincoln story, which is arguably the most iconic in the film. Enough has been written about this storyline already, but suffice it to say, nothing speaks to this film’s befuddling values more than the fact that it wants the audience to find nothing sweeter than a guy creeping on his best friend’s girlfriend/fiancee/wife from afar, and then confessing his feelings after they’re married and she’s found his secret tape of her. If you want to understand this movie’s confused view of love, you could watch this segment alone and comprehend, if not necessarily understand, how backwards Love Actually is when it comes to its titular subject matter. And as a bonus for fans of The Walking Dead (another work with some quality performances but not always admirable values and oft-atrocious writing), we discover that it’s not Andrew Lincoln’s cheek-chewing Georgia accent that’s holding him back, but rather his inability to seem like a real human being, whether he’s playing a trauma-swallowing southern sheriff or a creeptastic English romcom lead.
But again, Love Actually finds its footing when it instead focuses on the puppy love of middle schoolers, the sort of romance that is chaste and rudimentary enough to dovetail with the film’s naive-at-best view of human interactions. The notion of Liam Neeson’s character, newly widowed, connecting with his stepson by coaching him through a crush is one of the few genuinely sweet and heartwarming bits that the movie offers. It’s buoyed by the fact that the storyline centers more around Neeson’s growing relationship with his stepson, and leaves the tween romance material for school pageant pop songs and silly airport chases. Nothing in this plot is mindblowing, but there’s a bit of knowing fun and true feeling in it that’s all but missing from the rest of the movie.
Despite all its faults, Love Actually remains eminently watchable, which perhaps, more than its series of saccharine scenes, explains its longevity. Whether you want to attribute that to the killer cast director Richard Curtis assembled, or the light tone the film maintains, or the fact that jumping between plots keep the movie light on its feet, it’s an easy film to leave on, whether you’re genuinely touched by its stories or more apt to make fun of them. The linkages between plots are occasionally contrived, but generally clever, and even at its most eye-roll-inducing, the film is too insubstantial to really hate.
But the more you think about Love Actually, the clearer it becomes how ill-conceived the whole enterprise is. Between the cavalcade of men in positions of power lusting after their underlings, the body-shaming-in-the-guise-of-affirming and male gaze-y camera work, and the fundamental misunderstanding of what motivates genuine caring, affection, and yes, love are, it soon becomes apparent that this film is a pile of rusty nails covered by a thick layer of frosting and doused in ipecac. It seems sweet enough at first, but it’s more baffling and painful the deeper you go, and god help you if you start regurgitating it.
It's interesting to see the macho mobsters deal with the idea of homosexuality. Tony in particular seems not to care except that he has to. Again, we're seeing a lighter, more sensitive, more understanding Tony who keeps having to go back to his old ways because of his business. As Silvio lays out for him, if he's seen to have gone soft, even on something like who his capo sleeps with, because of the prejudices of his men, the whole thing could fall apart (as we saw when he was in a coma). Tony is trying to give into his better nature (despite his air conditioner bugging him) but more and more has to make the same compromises he always did.
I did enjoy the Melfi scene in this episode particularly. These scenes have a way of nudging at Tony's various hypocrisies and, the way he explained that guys get a pass in jail and how adamant he was that he never partook, and this large defense of homophobia he gives before essentially admitting that he doesn't care and wishes that he could let Vito be Vito was very Tevye-esque. It's an interesting idea -- Tony hates the idea of homosexuality in the abstract, but he knows Vito as a real live human being, and that's something much harder to hate. There's an interesting parallel with and Tony and Chris's conversation about the Arab men Chris has been dealing with. Chris concludes that they can't be terrorists because one of them has a dog, and they act like real people, not like scowling villains in a bond movie. I don't know whether or not those men are or aren't terrorist, but both scenes gesture toward the idea that we have one conception of the things we fear or hate or are uncomfortable with, and the reality of the situation, how complex and, dare I say, human, the people who embody those fears are, can throw us for a loop.
In some ways it's the same thing with Meadow's story. She sees the Afghani family who comes to see her as real people while her parents write them off as part of a nebulous other, to where they conclude that their son probably deserved whatever happened to him. But on the other side of the coin, Meadow was socialized into the civilian mafia culture and sees them as real people in a way that allows her to excuse and ignore the terrible things they do and that the culture endorses in a way that Finn, who is not nearly so indoctrinated, cannot.
And at the same time, Carmela is feeling restless again, in no small part because the two significant men in her life -- Tony and her father, have hindered her attempt at independence with the spec house while Angie Bumpensero is not only living well from her own body shop business, but is "putting money on the street." There's the hint that frustrated by her shot at legitimate business, she may want to be a bigger part of Tony's.
And Vito is...doing Vito stuff. We don't see much of him running away, and the show wisely chooses to depict most of it visually rather than in dialogue, but you do see him glancing at a seemingly accepted gay couple and get the impression that he too is torn between two worlds - the life he wants to live as his out self and the mob life that allows him to provide for his family (there's a lot of talk about him being a good father and a good husband). As in the last episode, both he and Tony can push down parts of themselves or they can get eaten alive but those around them. Vito's hoping he can live free here, at least for a while, with death very much looming in the corners of the place he might have belonged has his life gone differently.