Sunday, November 29, 2009

Christmas Movies 1: The Romantic Comedy to End All Romantic Comedies

Dawn and I have a large movie collection, and at about this time every year, we start pulling Christmas movies off the shelves. Our definition of a “Christmas movie” is broader than most. It ranges from beloved holiday classics like Dickens’s A Christmas Carol or the great Irving Berlin musical White Christmas to non-traditional movies that just happen to take place during the Christmas season, like Lethal Weapon, Die Hard or the disturbing Canadian slasher flick Black Christmas. I love to write about movies, so I thought I’d cover our Christmas viewing this year.

Love Actually is a Christmas movie, but it’s also a romantic comedy, and that genre is perennial. Its popularity never seems to fade, although the same can’t be said for its quality. Right now, the romantic comedy is in a pretty dismal state. It seems we’re bludgeoned over the head with one after another these days, nearly all of them wilted by-the-numbers exercises that range from vaguely amusing (often by accident or in unintentional ways) to deadly dull to deeply insulting. Each of these movies would maim or kill to have been written by the current king of the romantic comedy genre, Richard Curtis. He’s the man who gave us Four Weddings and A Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary. He has also been a force to be reckoned with in British comedy for the last three decades. When Curtis writes a romantic comedy, he seems to know precisely what we want, but he always spins a brody on our expectations and then gives us something more that we didn’t expect at all.

In Love Actually, he seems to have decided to create a romantic comedy to end all romantic comedies. There are at least ten love stories in this movie, all happening at once, each located at different spots on the relationship spectrum, and all taking place at Christmas. The cast of characters is long, and the cast of actors is stellar.

It’s led by Hugh Grant, who gives what I believe to be his best performance. No, wait. Grant gives virtually the same performance in every movie. I’m not being critical because that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Cary Grant – with whom Hugh Grant is often compared – did the same thing, and we never tired of it because it was wonderful. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Love Actually provides Grant with his best role. He plays Britain’s new Prime Minister, a very eligible bachelor, who, on his first day, realizes he’s fallen instantly in love with Natalie, a member of his staff (charmingly played by Martine McCutcheon) and says, “Oh, no, that is so inconvenient.” The PM’s sister, Karen (Emma Thompson), is married to Harry (Alan Rickman), an attorney who might be about to cheat on her. Harry’s assistant Sarah (Laura Linney) is in love with coworker Karl (Rodrigo Santoro). She thinks this is a secret, but it’s obvious to everyone at the office. Unfortunately, Sarah’s pursuit of this relationship is hindered by the fact that she feels obligated to be at the beck and call of her institutionalized schizophrenic brother.

This is just a small sampling of the many characters who populate Love Actually, and I'm afraid my descriptions of these relationships are very brief and inadequate. They are brief because, if they weren’t, we’d be here all night and I’d spoil the movie for you. They are inadequate because they sound mundane and fail to convey the richness and depth Curtis gives them.

There’s also Jamie Bennett (Colin Firth), a British crime novelist whose relationship with his girlfriend just ended unpleasantly, who goes to a cottage in France to work in solitude and lick his wounds and falls in love with his Portuguese maid Aurelia (Lucia Moniz). And then there’s Mark (Andrew Lincoln), who’s in love with his best friend’s new wife Juliet (played by Keira Knightley, or, as I call her, Skeletor – have a few sandwiches, Keira). There’s even a visit to the Prime Minister by an obnoxious United States president (Billy Bob Thornton) who’s sort of a blend of a lecherous Bill Clinton and a bullying George W. Bush. The president hits on Natalie and inspires Grant’s PM, in a memorable scene, to stand up to him rather boldly during a press conference. Watch for the delightful cameo by Rowan Atkinson, with whom Curtis has a long working relationship.

But it is Bill Nighy who tucks this movie under his arm and effortlessly walks away with it. He plays Billy Mack, a washed up, crusty old rock star who’s trying to make a comeback with a cover of “Love is All Around,” which has been transformed into a clumsy Christmas song. Mack is hoping his song will be the Christmas Number One and beat out the favored band, a group of slick youngsters called Blue. He goes from one radio and TV guest spot to another to promote his song, always accompanied by his longtime manager, Joe (Gregor Fisher), who looks sad and worried. Joe looks sad because ... well, we don't know exactly why, but just looking at him, we can see behind him a life filled with disappointments, a life lived on the fringes of the happiness of others. He is worried because he knows Mack is beyond caring anymore and will say and do whatever pops into his head. This provides some of the movie’s funniest and most touching moments. While on a radio show, Mack says, “When I was young and successful, I was greedy and foolish, and now I'm left with no one. Wrinkled and alone.” He says it matter-of-factly, but we know he means it, we know it’s true. The DJ expresses his gratitude for Mack’s frankness, and Mack says he’ll truthfully answer any question asked. So the DJ says, “Best shag you ever had.” Mack responds, “Brittney Spears.” Then he adds, “No, only kidding. She was rubbish.” When Mack begins to act up on a TV show, the hosts remind him that children are watching, so he says, “Hiya kids. Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don't buy drugs. Become a pop star, and they give you them for free!”

Love Actually is a necklace strung with one beautiful, priceless gem after another. It deftly shifts from sparkling comedy to real emotion, though the emotion is always delivered in an understated way. Since my first viewing in 2003, I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen it, but it has not lost an ounce of its effectiveness. If anything, it has become more effective. There are at least four moments in the movie that choke me up and make it necessary for me to blow my nose no matter how many times I see it, moments of such honest expressions of love and emotion that they hurt, but in a good way: When “Bye-Bye Baby” plays at Joanna’s funeral; when Karen opens her Christmas gift and realization dawns on her; when Mark reveals himself to Juliet at the front door and then tells himself, “Enough. Enough now,” as he walks away; and the scene that really knocks me out is when Billy Mack leaves Elton John’s party early to spend Christmas Eve with Joe and spills his guts to his astonished, teary-eyed manager. They aren’t the only ones, just the ones that hit me hardest. If you’ve seen the movie, you know the scenes I’m talking about. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for?

Curtis is brilliant in his use of pop songs throughout his movies, and Love Actually is no exception. After watching the movie, it’s hard to imagine it without those songs, or to imagine what other songs would have been more appropriate in the spots where they’re used. It's one of Curtis's many touches of perfection. Along with the songs, Craig Armstrong’s score is buoyant and uplifting. The whole thing is topped off by a spectacular rendition of “All I Want For Christmas is You,” beautifully performed by young Olivia Olson. Mariah Carey, eat your breast implants out.

The movie runs about two hours and ten minutes, but according to Richard Curtis on the DVD supplemental material, the original cut was three and a half hours. Some of the deleted footage is included on the DVD, and I strongly recommend watching it because it’s brilliant. I would love to see the movie restored to its full length. I guess the conventional wisdom is that it simply would not do for a romantic comedy to run that long. There are critics who slammed Love Actually for being too long at its current running time. I don’t understand this. Roger Ebert wrote, “No good movie is too long; no bad movie is short enough.” In my opinion, Love Actually is a great movie – quietly, gently great, but great nonetheless – and running for three and a half hours would not have changed that. Movies that run that long certainly aren’t unheard of, but they aren’t romantic comedies. War movies or historical epics, maybe, but never romantic comedies. Richard Curtis once said, “If you write a story about a soldier going AWOL and kidnapping a pregnant woman and finally shooting her in the head, it's called searingly realistic, even though it's never happened in the history of mankind. Whereas if you write about two people falling in love, which happens about a million times a day all over the world, for some reason or another, you're accused of writing something unrealistic and sentimental.”

Love Actually begins with a voiceover by Hugh Grant while we watch people reuniting at Heathrow airport, all of which was shot by hidden cameras placed there for a week. It sets the tone for the entire film. I think it’s beautiful:

“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it's not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it's always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I've got a sneaking suspicion love actually ... is all around.”

This Christmas, watch Love Actually with someone – or a group of someones – you love.


  1. Oh, I loved this movie. Not just because of the Rickman goodness, or the Nighy delights. But it's such a realistic look at life. It hurts and entertains, and while there's a lesson in there somewhere, it's not shoved up your arse. :)

  2. Ray, you made me cry--specifically the sentimental narration quote. This would be the first time you've elicited tears from my eyes other than tears of laughter. Thank you.

    I truly believe in love, and it really hits me when it is spoken like that.

  3. One of our favorite movies....

  4. I've never been disappointed in a Richard Curtis movie. I recently discovered Love Actually and it's so refreshing after the latest slew of formulaic RomComs. It is now in my Christmas collection along with Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story, Home Alone and another favourite, The Ref.

  5. I love this movie, too. I haven't analyzed in an in-depth way like you have, but I know that I feel good whenever I watch it. Looking at Rodrigo Santoro is definitely a highlight. ;-) I love the bit about learning to feel by listening to Joni Mitchell. That was part of the reason why I got a Joni Mitchell cd not too long after watching this movie. This movie does an excellent job of juggling all those storylines, and that's quite a feat. I agree that Bill Nighy is a key player in this movie. So much fun to watch him. There's just so much great stuff going on in this movie. Trying to think of something profound to say but nothing is coming to me!