Guest Writer Wednesday: "Love" Is "Actually" All Around Us (and Other Not-So-Deep Sentiments)

Movie poster for the romantic comedy Love Actually

This cross-post by Lady T previously appeared at her blog The Funny Feminist and is part of her ongoing series, “The Rom-Com Project.”

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For me, the quintessential Ensemble Romantic Comedy is Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It has all the ingredients of an Ensemble Rom-Com: all sets of characters are consumed by some form of love, and all sets of characters are connected by some overarching theme or event. In Midsummer’s case, the overarching event is the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta – an event that is of utmost important to Oberon/Titania/Puck, Bottom and the other mechanicals, and Hermia/Lysander/Helena/Demetrius, but concerning characters who are much less entertaining and engaging than the three sets of characters I just mentioned. (The play also explores themes of magic, love triangles, deception, and all sorts of interesting ideas that makes it one of Shakespeare’s best comedies.)

In the case of Love Actually, the Theseus/Hippolyta’s wedding is Christmas – or, arguably, the terminal at Heathrow Airport – and the three sets of main characters become nine sets of characters, and the themes of magic/love triangles/deception is whittled down to a Captain Obvious statement about love: “Love is actually all around us.”

Wow. Really? Love is everywhere, movie? Really?

Yes, I’m being sarcastic, and maybe I shouldn’t be. I don’t think Love Actually is meant to be incredibly deep or profound. I think it’s meant to be a movie that shows a series of fleeting moments and how people are connected to each other, and that’s it. It explores different types of (heterosexual) love, and some stories end sadly while others end happily.

The problem for me is that the only stories that worked for me were the ones that ended on a sad note.

The sad-ending stories
Keira Knightley/Andrew Lincoln/Chiwetel Ejiofor
I felt nauseous all throughout Keira Knightley’s story because I knew Andrew Lincoln was in love with her, and I was afraid that she was going to leave her new husband Chiwetel Ejiofor for his best friend. I liked that it ended on a melancholy note after the cue card scene, where she only kissed him once – maybe as a thank you, or just an acknowledgment of his feelings for her – and then walked away to go back to her husband, and then Andrew Lincoln told himself, “Enough,” and resolved to get over her. She wasn’t going to leave her husband for him just because he had a grand romantic gesture, and he didn’t expect her to leave him. It worked.

Except I couldn’t shake the feeling that it’s more than a little weird and creepy to give any kind of grand romantic gesture to your best friend’s wife regardless of your expectations, especially when said best friend is only a few feet away.

But maybe I’m being too critical.

Laura Linney/Rodrigo Santoro
Two people who loved each other from afar for years after working together for years finally connect on a romantic night, except that romantic night is disrupted when Laura Linney has to go take care of her mentally ill brother.

That one scene in the hospital where her brother has a violent reaction, the doctors come to intervene, and she quietly gets her brother under control…yes, it got to me. Perhaps on a more personal level than I wanted it to.

Except I couldn’t shake the feeling of dissatisfaction that Laura Linney and Rodrigo Santoro never shared an onscreen conversation about that interrupted romantic night, and that I didn’t understand the depth of feeling he had for her.

But maybe I’m being too critical.

Emma Thompson/Alan Rickman/tarty secretary dressed like the devil
I liked that the movie didn’t show us how Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman’s marriage turned out. In the epilogue, I couldn’t tell if they were together and trying (and failing) to make it work, or if they were separated and keeping up a good front for the sake of their kids. I liked that she held him responsible for the almost-affair and didn’t lay all the blame on the homewrecker, but on the person who was actually responsible for being true to their relationship.

Except I couldn’t shake the annoyance that the homewrecking secretary character was literally dressed like a cleavage-showing devil in a red outfit at a Christmas party. Come on. Really?

But maybe I’m being too critical.

The happy-ending stories
Keep in mind that those were the stories I liked. As for the other ones?

Hugh Grant/Martine McCutcheon
I liked that Prime Minister Hugh Grant was mindful of keeping professional boundaries between himself and the junior assistant he loved at first sight. I liked that he never overstepped his bounds and in fact had her transferred to a different job so he could uphold those professional boundaries. And, of course, I loved the dancing (although I prefer this dancing as far as Hugh Grant Dancing clips go). What I didn’t like was the unnecessary “Sexual Harassment from the American President” sidebar. It was unnecessarily political for a Christmas movie/rom-com (and somehow still had nothing to do with politics), it was a cheap American stereotype, and worst of all, it introduced a moment of sexual harassment for the sole purpose of giving the male character a Hero Moment.

Really, Love Actually? We needed a “I shall stand up against sexual harassment!” moment to see what a good guy he was? I guess it was a sign that his love for Martine McCutcheon was for real, but, well, I would hope that Our Hero would stand up for any of his employees that were being sexually harassed, not just the ones he happens to fancy.

Liam Neeson/son
First of all, watching this story was totally uncomfortable, given that Liam Neeson is playing a widower. But it’s not the movie’s fault that his real-life wife tragically died two years ago.

It is the movie’s fault that I got absolutely no sense of grief from Liam Neeson’s stepson for his mother. I get what the writers were going for – the little boy fixates on a girl his age named Joanna (his mother’s name) because he’s focusing on the one person/thing that makes him happy after his mother died. But even if that’s what the movie was going for, it’s not what I felt. What I felt was that the boy’s mother’s death was completely incidental to his life. “Mom’s dead, yeah, whatever, this American girl in my school is really cute.”

Too bad. There was real potential to explore how a stepfather and stepson might come together in shared grief for a wife and mother they both loved.

Colin Firth/Not Elizabeth Bennet
I’m sorry, but how many romantic cliches can happen in one storyline? The papers float into the water, so Not Elizabeth Bennet HAS to strip down in slow-motion while Colin Firth watches in amazement? The proposal in broken Portuguese and the acceptance in broken English? The “Hey, we’re having the same conversation and are TOTES ON THE SAME WAVELENGTH!” conversation while they speak in different languages?

And let’s not forget the delightful fake-out where Colin Firth goes to his beloved’s father to ask for her hand, and he hilariously confuses Colin Firth’s intentions, thinking that Colin Firth intends to marry the other daughter – and then we see that the other daughter is more than a size 4 and not Hollywood beautiful! LOL at the idea that the fat cow could find love with anyone, much less Mr. Darcy!

(Incidentally, I’m calling Lucia Moniz’s character Not Elizabeth Bennet only because I have a hard time seeing Colin Firth as anyone but Mr. Darcy. That is not the movie’s fault, or Lucia Moniz’s fault, or Colin Firth’s fault, for that matter.)

The comic relief stories
Meanwhile, there were three other storylines that are roughly the equivalent of “the mechancials put on a play for Theseus and Hippolyta.”

Martin Freeman/Joanna Page
I could have watched a whole movie about two body doubles finding love while they simulate sex with each other onscreen. Curse the DVD for skipping during one of their most important scenes.

Some dude goes to America to pick up chicks
Pretty self-explanatory. Praise the DVD for skipping during one of those crucial scenes.

Bill Nighy is an aged rocker who’s cynical about love
He’s cynical about romance but realizes he had love all along in the beleaguered assistant who puts up with his crap. He’s the most cynical character in the movie, and yet he inspires the least amount of cynicism in me, the viewer – that is, no cynicism at all. I have no complaints about this storyline. I loved it.

My verdict
Love Actually had a few effective comedic and dramatic moments. I appreciate the hilarity of Emma Thompson’s daughter proudly announcing that she got the part of “First Lobster” at her school’s nativity play, and I was moved by Emma Thompson trying not to cry during Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” Keep in mind, though, that Emma Thompson is one of those performers who never fails to move me no matter what the circumstances.

The movie as a whole, though? The stories that worked for me were the ones that either ended sadly, or were played for pure comedy with no tragicomic or dramatic elements. If the movie wants me to believe that “love actually is all around us,” I don’t think it worked.

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Lady T is an aspiring writer and comedian with two novels, a play, and a collection of comedy sketches in progress. She hopes to one day be published and finish one of her projects (not in that order). You can find more of her writing at The Funny Feminist, where she picks apart entertainment and reviews movies she hasn’t seen.
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15026520081840822618 Jarrah

    Thanks for this – glad I’m not the only person who found Love, Actually to be very unimpressive. I have a theory that when a movie gets more than 6 recognizable stars in it, it’s probably going to be bad(Valentine’s Day being another prime example). I don’t know whether Love, Actually was supposed to be deep, either, but I do think it was supposed to be heartwarming.

    I also agree with you that the thing with Keira Knightley’s husband’s friend was creepy, and that dressing the secretary as the devil was unnecessary and obvious. The happy stories tended to have similar creepiness. Even the Hugh Grant thing had a weird power dynamic. Although he had her transferred it seemed more to protect himself than help her.

    So, like you the only thing that really stuck with me were the sadder vignettes, particularly Emma Thompson’s Joni Mitchell moment. Definitely not enough to make me want to re-watch.