Selecting Love Actually for the vault wasn’t really because it was a Christmas movie, but more so because it features Martin Freeman in one of his first film roles. Freeman, who now plays Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, has come a long way since his days as John the sexual stand-in. That’s the reason for Love Actually this season, not for its Christmas ties, which Kai has pointed out and to which I agree, revolves around Christmas even though its plots doesn’t require it.
Love Actually is a romantic comedy involving an ensemble of stories featuring love which interconnect through some small thread. First and foremost is rock and roll icon, Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) who, with the help of his manager Joe (Gregor Fisher) decides to create and release a “Christmas-afied” version of Love Is All Around which, despite its awfulness, becomes a holiday sensation thanks to Billy’s candid promotional tour. Then there’s Jamie (Colin Firth) who, after discovering his latest love is unfaithful, moves to the French countryside to work in solitude only to inadvertently fall for his Portuguese housekeeper Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz) despite their language barrier. Daniel (Liam Neeson) is coping with the death of his wife and trying to raise his stepson Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) who later confesses to Daniel he is hopelessly in love with a girl at his school. Colin (Kris Marshall) is convinced his passion and sex drive is wasted on British girls, and vows to his pal Tony (Abdul Salis) that he will travel to America where he is certain his British accent and huge knob will be adored by American girls. Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is about to marry the love of his life, Juliet (Keira Knightley), and his best man Mark (Andrew Lincoln), has gone out of his way to make their wedding day memorable even if he has nothing to do with his friend’s new wife.
Studio manager Harry (Alan Rickman) calls in his employee Sarah (Laura Linney) to ask if this is the year when she’ll finally put voice to her well-known crush over her coworker Karl (Rodrigo Santoro). Meanwhile, Harry’s sexy secretary Mia (Heike Makatsch) is making it perfectly clear she wants to work under him in every capacity. At the office Christmas party, Harry’s wife, Karen (Emma Thompson), is suspicious of the minx, but raising their two kids and her older brother’s new job has her otherwise preoccupied. Her brother, David (Hugh Grant) is the newly elected Prime Minister and, upon meeting his new staff, finds himself instantly smitten with the potty-mouthed young Natalie (Martine McCutcheon). While all this is happening, John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page) begin to chat one another up on the job as movie stand-ins.
Whew! I think I’ve accounted for everyone. Everyone except Rowan Atkinson that is, who appears in a small role as a department store clerk. He also shows up later in the film, giving audiences the feeling he had a larger role. He did; in fact, writer-director Richard Curtis had intended his role to be akin to a Christmas angel, but apparently was cut for time. A good thing considering Love Actually clocks in two hours and fifteen minutes. It never feels that long; the one-thousand stories of love on the London Streets shuffle to and fro like a shell game, forcing audiences to keeps their wits about them so they don’t lose track.
The more important question is, what exactly are audiences supposed to be following? I adored Love Actually when I first watched it nearly a decade ago. However, having watched it for the first time in years I am starting to understand why folks like my wife hated it. It’s super sappy and cloying at nearly every turn. It holds the #1 position on Justin’s Top 10 “Girly Man” Movies which he describes as “movies about women, for women, and sometimes, by women.” The problem with that assertion is that Love Actually is certainly not written by women and I’d be hard-pressed to consider it as a film for women. What the film is, is a cleverly packaged highlights reel of syrupy, sentimental rom-com endings and moments that elicit warm fuzzy feelings from its audience.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing; hundreds of rom-coms out there do exactly that and if you’re looking for that experience, Love Actually provides it in spades. However, if you’re looking for a more believable quest for romance, it’s barely here. Of all the stories, John and Judy are perhaps the most sincere with Billy Mack’s story following a close second. Jamie’s infatuation with Aurelia, the flirtatious moments stolen between Harry and Mia, Colin’s American sex romp, and even Sam’s struggle to impress the girl at school feel like little more than superficial connections. Granted, Sam’s mission to win Joanna’s affections is damned adorable, but it’s not the stuff the great romances are built upon.
If you look closely, the stories featuring the best-written women, Karen and Sarah, end horribly for them. Being women who are loving and devoted to their husbands and family appears to be a detriment in favor of the young and vibrant. Not that audiences should be blamed for not noticing; Billy Mack’s antics are hilarious and the emotional moments ring true thanks to Curtis’s deft direction and storytelling. Though the love stories are shallow, Curtis’s interwoven tales also benefit from Love Actually‘s stellar cast. While I won’t tout everyone’s attributes, it is most impressive that many of the minor roles then, now feature some of television’s most honored actors. Audiences get to see a softer side of The Walking Dead‘s Rick as Lincoln plays the smitten best-friend Mark. January Jones and Elisha Cuthbert, now stars of their own ensemble shows, were little more than American eye candy in 2003. Most notable is Martin Freeman, whose sincere and awkward turn as John led him to become Watson on the hit BBC series Sherlock and now to the role as the world’s most famous hobbit, Bilbo Baggins.
The biggest fault Love Actually has is that it has opened the door to a series of insipid knock-off, vignette films. Richard Curtis’s film may not stand up to scrutiny, but it still remains entertaining, which is something the copycats have never even managed. Like gas logs, Love Actually still brings the heat, but there’s nothing warmer or cozier than the crackling flames of a real fire.