I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t already a fan of this film. It’s no Die Hard, but it ranks pretty high on my list of unconventional Christmas movies — which is the only list I consult. That said, at two hours and fourteen minutes, it’s not one I watch often. And, as far as I can recall, I’ve yet to revisit it as a single man without a woman by my side to tear up at various moments. Having conducted not so much as an informal survey of more than two people within a three yard radius, I can safely say without equivocation that Love Actually is one of the great heartstring-tuggers of the last two decades. I thought it’d be an interesting, if a tad masochistic, experiment to indulge in its unabashedly saccharine abundance without another warm body in sight to share it with.
So, here, I am, shortly after midnight on December 24th, alone in my bedroom staring down forty-something inches of Sony flatscreen as the Universal Pictures logo unfurls. My support system consists of four chicken wings, pork fried rice, 20 fluid ounces of Red Bull, and just enough Tito’s vodka to make the last both palatable and dangerous. Alright, Working Title productions and director Richard Curtis, let’s see what you’ve got: I’m buzzed. I’m vulnerable. And, outside, it’s raining. Make me cry.
Ah, hell. Within seconds of press-play, I realize this flick is way more deliberately manipulative than I remember. It opens with slow motion shots of people hugging in Heathrow Airport underscored by narration from Hugh Grant, the voice of bumbling, fated romance for the better part of my adulthood. Before iterating the movie’s title as hard as a hammer to a nail, Grant invokes 9/11 in the name of love. Fortunately, shortly after, crotchety Bill Nighy unleashes a stream of quaintly British but grounding expletives: “Aww, fuck, wank, bugger, shitting ass head and hole.” Maybe I’ll get through this, dry cheeks and all.
For those who don’t recall or haven’t seen it, this is one of those star-studded affairs with multiple story lines – usually divvy'ed up by couples or coupling – that are vaguely interconnected. If ever you’ve had to sit through one of the tedious American romcoms punched from this template – Valentine’s Day or New Year’s Eve – you have this prototypical ode to the provenance of occasion-oriented heartache to thank for that. Here, Liam Neeson is a grieving widower who curtails his mourning period to foster his stepson’s first courtship. Laura Linney gets called out by her curmudgeonly boss, played by Alan Rickman, for harboring a crush on a coworker. Rickman is a father of two – ahem – happily married to Emma Thompson. Emma Thompson’s brother is…
Oh, yes! This is the movie that asked us to believe that Hugh Grant could be the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. At the time, this seemed to make sense since Great Britain’s real PM, Tony Blair, had a decent head of hair, and Grant was, like, one of the only British people any of us cared about anyway. The newly elected PM struggles a bit to jumpstart his administration while pining over a curvy subordinate. The arc hinges on an uncomfortable visit from the President of the United States (Billy Bob Thornton) whose particular brand of New World creepiness crushes any question of Grant’s own impropriety. Grant takes a stand against Thornton’s Bully-In-Chief on the vaguest whiff of international policy, thereby winning the support and admiration of his constituency.
There is also an excruciatingly trite subplot involving a local dolt who dreams of traveling to the U.S., essentially, to get laid off his accent. Once here, at a bar in Wisconsin, he orders a domestic beer and immediately meets Ivana Milicevic, Elisha Cuthbert, and pre-Mad Men January Jones – roommates who share a bed. (I remember this story line was omitted from in-flight cuts of the film, presumably as much for its stupidity as for its raunchiness.) Simultaneously idealizing and skewering Americans and their values is one of the tried and true British film tropes upon which Love Actually leans heavily. Here are some of the others: musty pop standards played on musty pop radio, body shaming, overdoing Christmas, stammering, and Rowan Atkinson Does Everything Funny.
Some of the silly stuff still holds up. Some of it doesn’t. Martin Freeman (The Hobbit) as a nude movie stand-in is another sore spot. Andrew Lincoln (The Walking Dead) making platonic time with newlywed Keira Knightley under her husband Chiwetel Ejiofor’s (12 Years a Slave) nose feels oddly racist now. But the film, as a whole, still packs an emotional wallop. I was foolish to think that advancing age and relatively new singlehood would somehow deflect that poignancy. Emma accepting infidelity like a gut punch to the tune of Joni Mitchell has always been the standout moment for me. Laura Linney trying to carve out a sliver of happiness under the shadow of her brother’s mental illness is heady stuff. Colin Firth charms as a writer falling for the housekeeper he can’t communicate with (Brits and class, damn). But this time, even tween Thomas Sangster’s desperate sprint through airport security to say One Last Goodbye kind of got me going. Craig Armstrong’s touching score doesn’t help.
Enough beating around the bush. Did I cry this time, you ask? Well, as someone says in the movie, Christmas is the time you tell the truth. Love Actually was one of my ex-wife’s favorite films. She cried every time – especially at the Linney stuff. The truth is, I never actually stood a chance.