There are plenty of movies I love that, to me, seem as close to objectively “good” as subjective taste can possibly run. I find it hard to understand, for example, how someone could not be enchanted and astounded by Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Jaws is self-evidently great, I feel. Young Frankenstein. Ocean’s Eleven: not a film I would sponsor as one of cinema’s greatest triumphs, but one of my favorite “anytime” movies, and I have difficulty imagining someone not feeling the same.
Love Actually, though: I understand completely why people hate it. And the thing is, I am not always inclined to rush to its defense, because every time I read a “Here’s why Love Actually sucks” thinkpiece, I find myself nodding along to much of it. I don’t care to think of things as “guilty pleasures,” but this comes close.
Love Actually, released in late 2003, was written and directed by Richard Curtis, best known for Hugh Grant romantic comedies like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, but also as the only person who has a co-writing credit on every single episode of Blackadder. 12 It stars a galaxy of British talent, including the aforementioned Curtis movie protagonist and my personal 90s hair icon, Hugh Grant; a Liam Neeson not yet possessed of the particular set of skills that would serve him in his reinvention as an action star; squareheaded heartthrob for the PBS set Colin Firth; Keira Knightley, who I had an enormous crush on at the time; Emma Thompson, who I have an enormous crush on now; and Alan Rickman, who I miss too much to make a joke. Also that dude from The Walking Dead, I guess? Each of these folks and more get into all manner of romantic entanglements, aided by The Magic of the Christmas Season, in a series of loosely interconnected stories: Love Actually is to the Hallmark Christmas movie as Pulp Fiction is to the cheapie crime flick. And, if you have been on the internet at all, you know that it’s intensely divisive.
Now, me, I like to believe in love and all the stuff that’s bound up with that, and as a young Anglophile seeing this for the first time in the early 2000s, I loved all these actors, and the whole enterprise is so charming and buoyant that I’m mostly able to glide over the rough bits. For every trite or sappy moment, I find a poignant one. For every overly precious “writerly” line or joke, I find a well-observed, very human bit of dialogue. For every offensive attribute of a given story—and I do think there are bits that veer into being actively offensive—I find something genuinely life-affirming. Anthology films, which Love Actually more or less is, are uneven by their very nature, but even the individual stories in this movie can swing from wonderful to terrible. To the point where I sometimes ask myself, “Boos, I know you love this movie…but do you actually like it?”
So this year, which turns out to be the film’s 15th anniversary,3 I am setting out to determine the answer by putting each story “on trial.” I will speak for the prosecution and the defense, and then act as judge and jury to determine which stories are good, which stories are bad, and what it means for the movie as a whole.
For the prosecution, we’ll be looking at the following crimes:
- Problematic Content: Some stories have incidental fat-shaming or gay-panic type of jokes, while others have something unseemly baked into the story itself.
- Character Issues: Are the protagonists’ motivations unclear? Are they themselves overly precious? Just awful, unenjoyable specimens of humanity that make you question why you are spending any time at all with them on your television?
- Frustrating Execution: Most of the ideas behind the stories are sound enough romantic comedy or drama premises, but some of the choices Curtis makes are so baffling that they need to be called out here.
And for the defense, we’ll be looking at the positives:
- Comedy and Charm: Some of the stories are very funny, and some of them are not. I’ve thrown the somewhat abstract concept of “charm” in here because I find they’re bound up together with this movie.
- Drama and Poignancy: Some of the stories are also complex and emotional, and some of them are not.
- Does It Make You Believe in the Power of Love? ‘Cause that’s what we’re here for, baby.
Finally, I will weigh these virtues and vices and proclaim the story either GUILTY or ACQUITTED.
We’ll start tomorrow with the Prime Minister and the Catering Manager and go through another story on each day, hopefully wrapping up for Christmas.
Disclaimer: It should be taken as read for each of these that I acknowledge the…homogeneousness of the narratives. Richard Curtis is a white, cis, heterosexual Englishman born in 1956, writing what is in his wheelhouse. It is what it is, and I understand anyone who is inclined to nope out of the movie for these reasons.