Around Christmas, most families watch "A Christmas Carol" as an annual tradition. Others watch "It's A Wonderful Life" which I still haven't seen (don't ask me why). For my family, their annual tradition is not "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," but a British romantic comedy called "Love Actually." I myself prefer "Bad Santa" with Billy Bob Thornton, but I'm in the minority of those who want to see it at Christmastime. Now when it comes to romantic comedies, I usually can’t stand them because they all look the same. But my parents kept begging me to watch it just like they did with "The Big Lebowski," so I gave in and sat on one of those comfy leather chairs they have. It took me no time to be won over by what was shown onscreen, and it got off to a perfect start with Hugh Grant's character of the Prime Minister David saying:
"Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion is 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 weren't messages of hate or revenge, they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I've got a sneaky feeling you'll find that love actually is all around."
Now whereas your average romantic comedy focuses on one relationship which goes from its wonderful beginning to its horrific breakup only for those same two people getting back together again, "Love Actually" instead focuses on relationships between eight couples. So basically, we get to view love in all its various stages from where it is just starting for some, become uncertain for others, remains unrequited for the unlucky few, and young love which is typically fret with wonder and the first of many heartaches. You have no clear idea of where the movie is going, and that's what makes it so good. You become so enamored of these characters and what they go through, and you feel all the various emotions they are forced to deal with.
"Love Actually" was directed by Richard Curtis who brought to the screen one of the all-time great romantic comedies with "Four Weddings And A Funeral." Like that one, he keeps a sweet and mostly innocent tone that never becomes overly manipulative as it does in American cinema. Plus he gets nothing but genuine emotions from the actors, and that is a big help to say the least. With a cast as great as this one, you can always expect them to make their characters appear as real as they can be.
In describing the various stories, I think it'll be easier to talk about my favorite moments from the film. One that comes immediately to mind is the story of Juliet (Keira Knightley) who has just married Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) whose best man Mark (Andrew Lincoln) videotapes their wedding. There's one problem, all the footage Mark gets is of her. Watching Keira pick up on this and realize what it means is powerful, and Mark's reaction to her is perfectly complemented by Dido's "Here with Me." Hence the pain of unrequited love comes up again, dammit.
Then you have Alan Rickman, so sublime in every role he plays, as Harry who works as a managing director of a design agency whose secretary Mia is not so subtly hitting on him. However, he is married (and happily so it seems) to Karen (Emma Thompson). Karen's reaction to the present she didn't expect to get is a painful one to witness. Thompson, dare we ever forget, is still an amazing actress who can move you without using words. The things that people can tell about others without having to spell it out represents how good the screenplay is.
The hardest actor to watch in "Love Actually" though is Liam Neeson as we see his character trying to move after the sudden death of his wife. You can’t help but think of what happened to his real-life wife Natasha Richardson when Neeson delivers a touching eulogy here to his movie wife. But getting past that, it's fun to watch the wonderful relationship he has with his stepson Sam (Thomas Sangster) as he convinces him to chase after the girl he pines for. This might seem foolish in hindsight because we don't want to see our kids get their hearts shattered at such a young age, but it doesn't make sense to bottle up your feelings forever, does it?
Now while this movie has a wealth of fantastic British actors like any "Harry Potter" sequel, a few Americans do find their way into the mix. The most prominent one is the always fantastic Laura Linney who portrays Sarah, a woman tending to her mentally ill brother Michael while harboring an insatiable crush on the devastatingly handsome Karl (Rodrigo Santoro). For such a well-trained stage actress, Laura has such emotionally honest moments that she handles with such delicate subtlety. Seriously, it gets to where you don't even realize she is acting.
As for Hugh Grant, you can always count on him to bring that befuddled nervousness from "Four Weddings And A Funeral" and perform it to sheer comic perfection in something like this. I also loved the scene in which he puts the American President (Billy Bob Thornton) back in his place. You'd figure he would be stumbling about, but he plays the Prime Minister after all, and this is a Prime Minister who is not looking for a Bush/Blair relationship. Also, seeing him go door to door looking for the girl who strikes his fancy leads to a comic highpoint where he is forced to sing carols for young kids, and they react as if they were at a Justin Bieber concert.
But the one actor who steals the show in "Love Actually" is the hilarious Bill Nighy who plays raging rock and roll legend Billy Mack. He is a gift for those who do not want their Christmas movie characters to be overly (if at all) sentimental. The contempt Billy has for himself as he promotes his "festering turd of a record" is somewhat softened by his inescapable sense of humor even when he blatantly acts inappropriately:
"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!"
Colin Firth's performance as broken hearted writer Jamie Bennett serves as a reminder of why women still swoon after him ever since he was in "Pride & Prejudice." Watching him as he professes his love for his housemaid Aurélia (Lúcia Moniz) shows how disarmingly polite he can be while he is clearly scared to death. It's all funny and touching at the same time. It’s also fun watching him trying to master the Portuguese language which he has the same amount of luck that Lieutenant Uhura had understanding Klingon in "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country."
There are several other cute stories in "Love Actually" worth taking in like the relationship that builds up between John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page). It's great seeing John talk about how nice it is to have someone to chat with while he and Judy are working buck naked as stand-ins for a sex scene in a movie. It gives new meaning to the term "skip the foreplay."
Granted, some stories in "Love Actually" get shorter shrift than others, but everything seems to balance out just right. Movies these days tend to be better when they are condensed in structure, but the mix of stories on display here serves to show how powerful love can lift us up and tear us down in a heartbeat. I'm so glad that this romantic comedy is anything but conventional. There are so many of them out there (some of them starring Katherine Heigel) that drive me up the wall.
I do have to mention something in particular about the film; when we watch all the characters meeting up at the airport, it is interspersed with images of people meeting their family and loved ones at Heathrow Airport so happy to see each other. It blends perfectly into movie and makes you realize just how true to the heart "Love Actually" is in what it portrays. Having written this, I now understand and appreciate why my parents have made watching this movie an annual Christmas tradition.
I still like "Bad Santa" better though...