It’s Christmas! So let’s discuss the second most important thing about Christmas after the birth of Christ, that being terrible Richard Curtis film Love, Actually. Love, Actually is apparently a holiday thing across the English-speaking world and possibly beyond (it’s very popular in Australia, to the point where haters are oppressed by friends and family).
Anyone who’s watched Love, Actually knows that it is loathsome because every woman who isn’t a maid or a secretary ends up humiliated and miserable and every woman who openly wants sex is an evil harlot complete with devil horns. In addition, almost every character lives in a middle-class paradise, with stainless steel refrigerators in every kitchen and tasteful record or art collections on every wall. The poors don’t have lofts and floor-to-ceiling windows, which is how you can tell they are unfortunates. It’s all ridiculous and induces vomiting of candy canes and chocolate oranges. These flaws have been documented at length.
I find the most interesting critique to be that of the Atlantic’s Christopher Orr, who faults Love, Actually for being a poor romance about men who can’t muster up the courage to say “I love you” to their women. He’s right, but he’s missing the real story Curtis told, which isn’t about sharing love at all. The point of Love, Actually isn’t that people find love or even passion with one another. The point is that men don’t have the courage to state themselves to their prospective ladies. Then, at the climax of each “romance,” they are able to overcome their fear and declare their interest. The emotional declaration is the obstacle. That’s all.
Think about it. The high points of all the romantic arcs are proposals–future hobbit Martin Freeman asks out his porn stand-in lady, Colin Firth asks his maid to marry him, the kid who went on to play Jojen Reed “goes for it” and tells his schoolmate crush that he likes her. Well, you may say, isn’t the proposal a huge plot point in many romances? Yes, but—most romances focus on the emotional impact of the answer as well as the question. In Love, Actually, the main obstacle isn’t “Will she say yes?” but “Will I even ask”? Overcoming that inner obstacle is the man’s struggle. The woman at the end is almost an afterthought.
This idea of admission as crowning achievement and plot payoff extends even to the unsuccessful couplings. The gross Keira Knightly plot, in which new bride Knightly is obsessed over by her husband’s best friend, is satisfactorily romantic by Curtis’s standards. The friend is able to declare his admiration of Keira, so he’s a sort of winner by Curtis’s definition. Even the relationship between pop singer Bill Nighy and his jean-tuxedoed manager rests upon emotional revelation—Nighy tells his manager that he loves him, in a nonsexual way, of course.* The point is that a man has gotten past his stuttering and muttering and general awkwardness. Even if he doesn’t win a woman, he still went out there and tried. Good for you, son. He’s grown as a person, not because he’s connected with anyone else but because he’s managed to express himself, even if it’s in an way that’s condescending or really might necessitate police action.
Part of the reason that I can’t warm to the movie is that Curtis doesn’t know what to do with women who aren’t spurs to men’s emotional growth—the two women who show any sort of desire or intent are a devilish homewrecker and Laura Linney’s character, who isn’t able to disengage herself from her brother. Not much there for the female viewer who wants to empathize with a protagonist. The struggle to express emotions openly isn’t a female struggle–good women bottle theirs up inside, like Emma Thompson dabbing at her eyes before she goes out to smile on her ridiculously costumed children, or the martyr-y Laura Linney, who’s unwilling to tell anyone about her brother because she’s Just That Noble. Women don’t get prizes for emotional revelation, they just end up witches or spinsters or unbearably noble. Too depressing for Christmas, in my opinion, but since that’s often a female character’s fate maybe I’m just being a Christmas softie.
Anyway, I wrote this not just to fulfil my own desire to bitch about Love, Actually. That’s about 98 percent of the reason, but the other 2 percent genuinely wants to help someone on Christmas if they’re trapped watching this awful film. Here’s what to do–if for some reason you must watch Love, Actually this Christmas–you might be doing it right now, as I write–then any time a man is talking to a woman, just imagine Star Wars, and when the parts come where the men confess their feelings, you can just remember Luke shooting the “great shot” into the Death Star. It’s the same hero’s journey stuff, for god’s sake. May the Force be with you, emotionally constipated British men! And merry Christmas, every one!
* For all the nipple shots and talk of fucking and shagging, Love, Actually doesn’t include much heterosexual action. The sex is either cartoonish, simulated, interrupted, or morally compromised through cheating on a spouse or partner. Colin Firth may gaze upon his lady while she’s clad in bra and panty set, but when it comes down to it he’d rather spend his screen time with her buying bags of garlic. It’s more domestic porn than, well, porn.