In Love Actually/Hate Actually, Great Boos Up discusses each story in the movie and puts it on trial in an attempt to grapple with his enjoyment of the movie versus his own acknowledgement of its problems.
The Defendants: Sarah and Karl
Which Story Is This? For years, Sarah (Laura Linney) has pined from afar for her co-worker Karl (Rodrigo Santoro). She is constantly getting intrusive personal calls on her phone for reasons that are initially unclear. At the insistence of her boss (Alan Rickman, who will co-lead a different story), she resolves to use the office Christmas party as a way to connect with Karl. They do, and they go back to Sarah’s place. Before they can get up to much in the way of sexytimes, Sarah gets another phone call. It’s revealed that her brother, Michael, is mentally ill and in an institution and calls her frequently. She calls off the rendezvous so she can attend to her brother. She apparently never reconnects with Karl.
Problematic Content: 1/5. The strain of caring for a family member with severe mental health issues seems respectfully and sensitively portrayed. You could argue it is inappropriate and weird for Sarah’s boss to be trying to hook up his employees, but eh, it’s a small place, they seem to be legitimate friends.
Character Issues: 2/5. The characters aren’t really very well defined. I gave John and Judy (the stand-ins) a bit of a pass because theirs was pretty much a one-joke comedy piece that doesn’t demand much depth. But this one is longer and goes for some real emotional stakes, so it comes off as a bit more glaring that these people don’t really have much personality or any particular reason why they might want to be together. Karl’s character can be summed up as, “Is fine as hell; has no qualms against sleeping with a co-worker.”
Frustrating Execution: 4/5. It’s sort of bad form in film criticism to compare the film you’ve seen with the film you would have liked to see, but fortunately this is a series of jokey articles I’ve written and not actual film criticism.
It’s a setup that’s loaded with conflict. Sarah is overwhelmed by caring for her brother but feels obligated to give him her total attention to the total exclusion of her own wants. Karl suggests maybe ignoring his call just this once, and maybe it’s meant to be slightly unsympathetic, but this would be a lot to drop on Karl the first time they hook up, and he doesn’t really know the situation. So what you want to see is a second half to this story where Sarah learns that she needs to take some time for self-care, and Karl learns to appreciate Sarah’s situation and accommodate it where possible. Like, eventually maybe they could go visit her brother…together? Or maybe they try it and it’s too much for him and doesn’t work after all, but they each can at least take something away from the brief relationship.
But we don’t get a second half. They both just give up! It’s awfully dramatically unsatisfying. Laura Linney turns to the camera and says, “Well folks, I drew the short straw. I get the ‘deciding to live with your disappointment’ ending.”
Comedy and Charm: 1/5. Well, Alan Rickman is very funny, appropriateness notwithstanding! I do enjoy the gag of Sarah hastily tidying up her bedroom before Karl can see it and then sort of apologizing to a teddy bear before stashing him away. But this is a serious one by design, so there’s not a lot of laffs.
Drama and Poignancy: 5/5. Laura Linney is terrific in this. In the middle of this breezy rom-com with a wacky prime minister getting up to shenanigans and what have you, she pulls off a really sensitive portrayal. The way she talks to her brother feels real. Her wishing Karl a casual good night and then almost breaking down after he leaves but then pulling herself back together when she gets another call from her brother: absolutely heartbreaking.
Does It Make You Believe in the Power of Love? 1/5. This is explicitly a story in which love does not conquer all. I mean, Colin Firth gets the woman he loves despite not speaking her language, and that other obnoxious goon falls into an orgy the second he gets to America, but Laura Linney doesn’t get to find her way past the obstacles standing between her and romance.
But maybe the story is meant to be about familial love? She spends Christmas with her brother, who, in contrast to a violent outburst earlier in the story, is warm and affectionate. I still think it’s unfair but I guess I can give it a 1.
GUILTY. Although this one was pretty close. It’s sensitively written and terrifically well acted, but damn is it a bringdown in this film.