A lot of people have asked, “what if Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece about tangentially interlocking stories, Magnolia, was more of a holiday romantic comedy set in Britain than an existential nighmare about death and despair in Los Angeles?”
What’s that? No one has ever asked that question? Wrong, jerk off (n: 1. wanker)! At least one person has asked that question and his name is Richard Curtis. He made a movie called Love, Actually, starring every British actor ever born and, despite the fact that I am an emotionally stunted Texan who likes to shoot bb guns at stacks of cans, it’s a movie that I can’t help but watch all the way through when I come across it on cable this time of year.
Love, Actually is a deeply flawed film that, if we take cinematic abortions with the same huge cast/holiday/romcom formula (I’m looking at you Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve), should absolutely not work. Nevertheless it hits the spot because it understands that during the Holidays all of us just want to be having at least semi-meaningful sex with somebody who doesn’t steal our wallet in the morning, and because its saccharine message is delivered by some very gifted actors who know how to elevate such calculated material. The script has about a dozen plot lines, all featuring well-known performers from that Harry Potter movie you liked so much who are finding and losing love over the course of the weeks between Black Friday and New Year’s Day.
Some of these plots are better than others, but all of them are fundamentally likeable, and all of them have that weirdly charming Englishness to them that never seems to show up in the horrifying selection of romantic comedies that is our current “Kate Hudson is a wacky career girl who needs a man” slate in America. London is imagined as a small town in which everyone is playing six degrees of Kevin Bacon with one another, from the goggly-eyed caterer to the prime minister, played by Hugh Grant (who made a deal with the devil, stipulating that his eyes will always be slightly crooked and he will never be Colin Firth).
Two of the plots in particular are worthy of praise. The first involves Bill Nighy, playing a lonely washout rock star who misses the attention he got during his days as a pre-mummified Mick Jagger-level icon named Billy Mack. Billy is afraid of his impending obscurity, of looking in the mirror to find that his pansexual appeal has faded in the face of pre-packaged boy pop. He is a sad old cuss, who hatches a scheme to top the charts by burning every bridge he has left and generally not giving a fuck (you know, like rock stars did before Rod Stewart became an acceptable guest on The View).
Billy succeeds, but still finds himself alone on Christmas, save for the company of his long suffering manager. There is a wonderful moment when Billy realizes that, if nothing else, he has always had this one friend he could count on. The relationship has actual texture to it and when the two finally confess their platonic love for one another, it feels incredibly honest. We all probably have that one friend who will always pick up the phone and shoot the shit. Now’s a good time to call them.
The other standout involves the marriage of Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman. It seems like a comfortable arrangement, made strong by the passage of time, the birth of children, and a healthy dose of mutual affection. In order to drive the story along, however, Rickman’s character is written with a wandering eye and he soon acts on his urges. The moment Emma Thompson discovers the infidelity is a quiet one, set to the liquid tones of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”. It’s a powerful, wordless scene that deserves better surroundings. I died a little inside watching it for the first time all those years ago. Here it is. Ignore the first 20 seconds and the fact that everyone is speaking in dubbed Italian.
The plot with Liam Neeson and his moppet stepson is also quite nice, but I’m running out of steam.
The title is awful.
The title is taken from a monologue at the beginning of the film that’s all about September 11th. Get your own national tragedy to overuse as a metaphor for life, Great Britain.
The closing credits roll over “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys, thus making this the official weird English bizzaro twin to Boogie Nights.
Alan Rickman cheats on Emma Thompson with a horrible monster. Why, Snape? Why?
Not all of the plots hold water, but the world may be coming to an end one year from the day of this writing. Whether the culprits will be the Chinese, vengeful Mayan prophecy ghosts, or congressional Republicans remains to be seen. In the meantime, it might be wise to appreciate the fact that some British loon with a lot of money and a camera put all of his friends in a movie that is fundamentally good-natured… and that love, actually, is all around (wah waaah).
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: when you see Andrew Lincoln (currently starring as a Southern cop on AMC’s The Walking Dead) speaking in his native accent.
Take a Drink: for every non-British accent used in the film (there are five or six by my count).
Drink A Shot: whenever Rowan Atkinson appears all too briefly, failing to justify his above title billing.