I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes… when the month of December rolls around, the need to watch Love Actually is a feeling that grows. I’ve watched the movie at least a dozen times since friends introduced it to me seven or eight years ago. It delivers on that harmless popcorn flick level that never disappoints regardless of how many times you watch it. It’s endlessly quotable, and never fails to get laughs in all the right spots, despite year after year of viewing.
The first scene of the movie, when washed-up rock star Billy Mack attempts a comeback with a yule-themed reworking of The Trogg’s 60s hit Love is All Around, never fails to bring a smile to my face. Most of that joy is created by actor Bill Nighy’s gleefully mischievous performance as Mack. Nighy sinks his teeth into the persona of the has-been rock god like he’s biting into a thick medium-rare steak. I have to wonder if he didn’t serve as an example to the rest of the cast. Everyone involved in Love Actually takes the material they’re given – which is by turns cheesy, silly, funny, and depressing – and together they deliver an unabashedly heartfelt piece of entertainment that doesn’t have a cynical bone in its body. When the film leaves Nighy as he hilariously struggles to shoehorn the correct Christmas references into the song, composer Craig Armstrong transforms the melody into a sweeping orchestral piece as we meet the rest of the characters. The joy of that opening montage is infectious, and if you let it work its magic, you realize that love actually is all around.
Director Richard Curtis set out to make the definitive romantic comedy, so he wrote this tale of nine intersecting stories about the trials and tribulations of love set in the month leading up to Christmas. Based on how many knock-offs have come in the dozen years since Love Actually was released, it’s obvious quite a few screenwriters thought Curtis was on to something. From Valentine’s Day to New Year’s Eve to He’s Just Not that Into You, the formula has been copied, but not as successfully as in Love Actually. Most of that success is thanks to the cast taking Curtis’ over the top situations and creating unforgettable moments with their performances.
Along with Nighy spewing obscenities when he can’t get the new words to the song right, there’s Hugh Grant as the Prime Minister of Great Britain dancing like no one is watching him, and hilariously trying to play it off when he realizes someone actually is. Meanwhile, Colin Firth’s befuddled nebbish Jamie falling for a woman he literally can’t communicate with is adorably charming. Love Actually is great at winning the audience over with these moments, both big and small. Even when things get completely ridiculous – like one character stumbling into an orgy with four impossibly gorgeous women – the movie has built up enough goodwill that you’re willing to just go with it.
But it’s not all fun and games. For every happily ever after, there are instances of love not working out. Curtis is willing to explore the real world heartache of finding the love of your life, then losing it. Liam Neeson portrays Daniel, a man overcome with anguish after the death of his wife. Daniel is distracted from his grief when his stepson requests help winning over his first crush. Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson play a long-married couple dealing with the havoc that infidelity can wreak in a relationship, even or especially when that betrayal is mostly emotional. Laura Linney’s character, Sarah, allows the movie to examine non-romantic love by depicting the depth of her commitment to her mentally ill brother Michael. Sarah must remain available to him 24/7, possibly at the expense of her own happiness. It’s the cost of a truly unconditional love.
Love Actually isn’t perfect, though. A lot of what the movie says about love falls under easy Hollywood tropes regarding romance. A few of the storylines don’t amount to much more than a meet cute, a few scenes of adorable back-and-forth, and finally a happy ending. For instance, Martin Freeman and Joanna Page play a couple that falls for each other on the unlikely job as stand-ins during a porn shoot. That subplot is particularly lightweight, but the actors are just endearing enough to make you forget how disposable their story feels.
But sometimes that’s all you want in a movie like Love Actually. It’s certainly a more interesting genre exercise for having a mix of both lighthearted and more serious ruminations on love and what it does to us, even if every attempt doesn’t quite work. It all goes back to the performances being the movie’s real strength. When Rowan Atkinson, Mr. Bean himself, turns up as a jewelry salesman seemingly put on earth to make Alan Rickman’s life a hysterically funny living hell, it becomes a lot easier to overlook the flaws and enjoy Love Actually for the harmless confection that it is.
Why it got 4 stars:
- It never fails to entertain, no matter how many times I watch it.
- Seriously, Bill Nighy is worth the four stars all by himself.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- So much of this movie really is the tiny moments. I didn't want to mention each one in the main review, because then it would have become an exercise in "Hey, remember that?! Remember this?! Wasn't that awesome?!" and that ain't film criticism. But, there are so many great moments...like:
-Colin Firth's little nervous verbal hiccup as he makes his way over the rail to help Aurelia retrieve his papers from the lake.
-The choice between the transvestite doll and the dominatrix doll.
-Billy Mack's advice to children about drugs.
-The proposal made in very broken Portuguese.
-And I don't think this was supposed to be funny, but the way Alan Rickman pronounces the word guacamole. Gets me every time.
- I mentioned the infidelity between Rickman and Thompson's charactes being possibly just emotional. It just so happens Richard Curtis' partner recently cleared that ambiguity up for us all.
- Lindy West wrote about Love Actually a few years ago, and it's pretty hilarious. I don't agree with her overall assessment of the movie, but the way she takes it to task over how it treats women is right on target.
- Rodrigo Santoro sans shirt... hubba, hubba.