Last week when I posted the article "Five Great Christmas Moves for Grown Ups" I drew some flack in the comments section for including Richard Curtis's 2003 barrage of romantic comedy Love Actually on the list. While I'm usually happy to let opinions stand as they are, I feel compelled to defend this film not just because some people don't like it, but because this initially very positively-reviewed movie has suffered from an incredible backlash in the past year or so. Here's my case for why Love Actually is not only not a bad movie, but may just be one of the better films of the decade.
First and foremost, we can't take Love Actually out of its time. If we formed our opinions of movies, or any bit of pop culture, without any regard for the conditions under which they were made we'd eventually hate everything. Hell, even Casablanca could be derided for its unnatural dialogue, two-dimensional characters and use of yet another heartless Nazi as an antagonist. Given that Casablanca was made in 1942, we let all of those things slide, and rightly so. In the context of 2003, Love Actually makes a lot more sense.
As Richard Curtis himself (rather bluntly) explains in the film's intro, Love Actually was filmed around 2002 and early 2003, a time when the general tone of life in Anglophone cultures was rather bleak. While we may look at Love Actually as a shamelessly sweet confection of a movie, at the time it was a bit more defiantly happy than exactly trashy. The audience didn't just need a love story, it needed several at the same time, if only to cut through the noise of a crashing economy and a constant stream of news reports telling us just how horrible the condition of the world was. It should also be noted that Love Actually is one of the first mainstream films to satirically portray George W. Bush. The still-sitting president got a not-too-subtle send-up in Billy Bob Thorton's crass Texan visitor to 10 Downing Street.
That said, the resulting movie is still pretty good on its technical merits. There's not a single performance that's particularly weak, the mise-en-scene is full of excellent little touches that make every set look lived-in and sometimes the film even veers into postmodern territory that reveals just how conscious of its absurdity it really is. Of course Love Actually is a parade of sketch-like bits and grand, sweeping conclusions. Does it ever promise to be anything but?
It's simply missing the point to despise Love Actually for all of its grandiose, only-in-the-movies gestures. That's what it's there for, to be indulgent. It's like a Snickers bar. Chocolate is a treat, nougat is a treat, caramel is a treat and peanuts are a treat. It seems ridiculous, in theory, to mash them all together into a dense package so you can eat them all at once. Yet, it's less absurd to eat a Snickers than to eat an entire bowl of caramel or an equally dense bar of pure chocolate. Were any of the individual stories in Love Actually stretched out into a feature-length movie, I'm fairly certain that movie would be junk. But because we get maybe ten to fifteen minutes of each at most, the combination is surprisingly charming.
But I'm still not willing to call Love Actually a guilty pleasure. It's just too smart and well-executed for that. No, not all of the plots blossom into great cinema, but some transcend the very genre they ostensibly represent. Take, for instance, Colin Frissell (Chris Marshall) and his quixotic quest for sex in America. After a movie's worth of buildup that seems certain to result in Colin's humiliation, he instead has a surreal level of success in a scene that undercuts not just standing comedy conventions but also any cynical expectations of mainstream predictability. On the other end of the spectrum, Laura Linney's Sarah seems predestined by the gods of romantic comedy to finally capture the heart of her impossibly hunky, exotic crush, only to ultimately be forced to choose between him and the strikingly real reason she can't turn off her cell phone. The scene between Sarah and her mentally ill brother is bracing as a visit to the drab, difficult reality of the world outside rom-coms.
Love Actually knows what it's doing. It's not some brainless Christmas movie that exists just to give the lowest common denominator what they want. It's a simultaneous deconstruction and celebration of the romantic comedy as a genre. It's also a rather brave picture for its time, coming out swinging in an age when life outside the multiplex was pretty oppressive.