Loving And Loathing Love Actually

Chris Orr can’t stand that the 2003 film has become a holiday classic:

Love Actually is a considerable outlier among romantic comedies in its rigorous conviction not only that people fall in love without really knowing one another, but that they don’t even need to learn anything about each other to confirm their initial attraction. … The fundamental problem with Love Actually is that it presents romance as either absurdly easy—something that strikes you like a thunderclap and requires only a single grand gesture in order to be fulfilled—or all but impossible. Notably absent is the idea that love might ever be worth a little sustained effort: some mutual exploration and discovery, a bit of care and nurture, maybe even the overcoming of an obstacle or two. Indeed, it’s hard to shake the sense that what is “classic” about Love Actually is not that it shows us anything about how people fall in love, but that it so conspicuously declines even to try.

Emma Green issues a defense, saying she’s drawn to “the excitement and power of demonstrations of love”:

None of the movie’s characters manages to pull off a Hollywood-perfect version of this.

Hugh Grant, who plays Britain’s prime minister, gets caught kissing one of his staffers, played by Natalie McCutcheon, on stage at her nephew’s Christmas play. Colin Firth proposes to his former house cleaner, Lúcia Moniz, in grammatically sketchy Portuguese. Martin Freeman’s character meets Joanna Page’s character while they’re working as body doubles on the set of a soft-core porn movie, yet he fumbles their first kiss after he finally asks her out on a date. These scenarios are messy, awkward, and often hilarious, but they are also winning, because they make the universe seem ever-so-slightly more wondrous.

If the real world is not like this, then perhaps it’s the real world that needs to change—we’d be better off if there were more grand gestures. These are moments that remind of how special life really is: The gesturer gets the thrill of delighting someone they care about; the recipient feels as though they are uniquely worth of someone’s affections; and bystanders believe that, one day, they too might find the high heights of enthusiastic, whirlwind love.

Ben Dreyfuss echoes Green:

Love Actually is the most pro-romantic film ever. It is a clarion call to share your pent up feelings for other people. That is good. That is decent. That is rare. People like to be told that they’re thought of as wonderful, that they matter to someone else. People should do it more often. And sure, they probably don’t feel the same way about you, but you should find out. Just in cases.

Alyssa Rosenberg, for her part, appreciates the movie “not because I think it’s a compelling celebration of love, or because it’s a good holiday movie, but because of how sad the film often is.” Lindy West joins the haters, and so does Julian Sanchez, who zooms out:

The ultimate wish-fulfillment is not imagining that you can become special through sustained effort, but to have it confirmed that you were special all along, as you always secretly suspected. A romcom in which two characters find love because they are both interesting, clever, funny, accomplished, kind, confident, attractive—insert your favorite adjective here—and play equal parts in winning of the affection of the other would not only fail to scratch this itch, it would be depressing. We don’t go to movies to watch people more interesting, clever, funny etc etc than ourselves achieve love and happiness in a context very much like that of our real lives—that’s what we are watching in our real lives. We go to movies to be reassured that we can have those things without being transformed ourselves. The viewer-identification characters here, then, need to seem basically good and genial—we’re not going to project ourselves onto someone actively unlikable—but also bland and passive enough that they don’t leave us feeling like true love is for people with desirable characteristics we conspicuously lack.

Orr stands by his claim that the film is “not merely unromantic, but actively anti-romantic”:

The problem … is the patterns that emerge when you consider the film as a whole. One subplot about an older man wooing a much-younger subordinate? Fine. But three? And on it goes: not one, but two gags (three, if you count the Colin subplot) about how the only possible way a man could overcome heartbreak is with the assistance of one or more supermodels; two storylines in which women (never men) see their romantic lives shattered by obstacles that ought to be surmountable; and, most important, upwards of half a dozen subplots in which characters go directly from initial physical infatuation to (presumed) happily-ever-afters, without remotely bothering to get to know one another in between. … Set aside the [Laura] Linney and [Alan] Rickman-[Emma] Thompson storylines (which I find problematic in other ways), and it’s almost two hours of rom-com porn, of grand gestures with little buildup and no follow through, of money shots.

Catherine Andrews calls for a truce, claiming that “almost all ‘rom coms’ are this bad”:

Look, in the end, I can forgive anybody, including myself, who likes Love Actually. Because BRITISH ACCENTS. And Colin Firth. And I guess it kinda WOULD be nice to fall in love without having to ever try or talk to a person or go on OKCupid. … And we could also just admit to ourselves, Love Actually is a movie with many sins, but sometimes, things are hard, and we just want to pop a beer and watch a stupid fantasy movie. Arrow-shooting elves don’t exist, but they’re fun to watch — and just because they’re depicted on screen doesn’t necessarily mean that most of us think it’s that way in real life. At least, I hope not.