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: Daniel and Sam and Joanna and Carol
Which Story Is This? Daniel (Liam Neeson) is left to raise his stepson Sam (Thomas Sangster) alone after his wife, Joanna, dies. Daniel is concerned that Sam seems to be withdrawing over his mother’s death, but the truth is, he has fallen in love with his classmate, also named Joanna (Olivia Olson). Daniel and Sam bond over discussing love and women and wooing. Sam decides to learn the drums so that he can play in the Christmas pageant where Joanna is going to sing. After the pageant is over, Joanna is due to leave for America, so Sam races through airport security to tell her goodbye, and he gets a kiss on the cheek. Also Daniel, who evidently has a thing for Claudia Schiffer, meets a mum from school, Carol (Claudia Schiffer).
Problematic Content: 1/5. You know what? I’m gonna say it: it’s weird that Sam’s love interest has the same name as his mom. It implies maybe some degree of…interchangability of women? And, like, Daniel is already dating like a couple weeks after his wife’s death largely just because this chick looks like the supermodel he likes? Am I being oversensitive? Otherwise, this seems pretty okay to me. Daniel makes an overture of being tolerant if it so happened that Sam is gay or bi (“What does she…he?…think of you?”).
Character Issues: 3/5. They’re a bit precious, aren’t they? I mean, that’s true of almost every character in the movie, but here is where I think the cuteness starts to grate a bit. “Worse than the total agony of being in love?” “We need Kate…and we need Leo…and we need them now.” “Let’s go get the shit kicked out of us by love.” And it’s not the fault of a child actor because you have Liam “Fucking” Neeson here just sort of tripping over being “hilariously inappropriate dad” in places.
Even Karen, the great Emma Thompson from the other story, hits a couple of bum notes in her appearance in this story, where’s forced to give the most painful exposition drop in history: “It doesn’t mean I’m not terribly concerned that your wife just died.” She later tells him that he shouldn’t cry because no one’s going to want to shag him, which…I get that Richard Curtis is aware he’s doing a kind of a potentially cloying heartwarmer of a story and he’s trying to sharpen it up a bit with the swearing and the frank sexual dialogue (“We’ll want to have sex in every room of the house, including yours.”). But it makes Karen in particular like a weirdly different character in this story.
Frustrating Execution: 2/5. Do you remember in the Harry and Karen story how I said that I disliked the ambiguity in the resolution? This story has something even more strangely ambiguous: IS DANIEL IN LOVE WITH KAREN??? He’s calling her at his low point in the beginning of the story, telling her he has literally no one else he can talk to. There’s a moment later on where she’s in his kitchen and they both reach in a box (of cereal?) at the same time, which feels significant. Then at the end, when he meets his Claudia Schiffer dreamgirl, he mistakenly calls her “Karen.” ARE THESE ACCIDENTS? Was there an alternative ending for this story and the Harry/Karen story where Karen and Daniel hook up? Why is this stuff even in here? I HAVE TO KNOW.
On the plus side, Curtis cut out a subplot/detail that Sam is a gymnast and is able to evade airport security through flips and leaps, and this seems like some admirable restraint.
Comedy and Charm: 3/5. While it is overly precious, a lot of it is pretty funny. I complained about how heavily this relies on the gag of “inappropriate dad,” but when it works, it works. He calls his stepson “Ya wee motherless mongrel”; this, to me, is humor. I like seeing Liam Neeson in a comedy, and I wish he were called upon to do it more often, you know?
Drama and Poignancy: 4/5. Neeson’s really good here, too! There’s that moment where he’s talking to Emma Thompson and then, in mid-sentence, his face seems to scrunch in on itself as he silently starts to cry. That absolutely haunted look in his face as he’s carrying the casket. It probably hits a little harder now due to the misfortune in Neeson’s own life, but even when I first saw it in theaters, it’s pretty affecting.
Does It Make You Believe in the Power of Love? 5/5. This one, as Stefan would say, has everything: grieving over a lost spouse, stepfather/stepson bonding, the purity of childhood crushes, an entire school coming together over a very nice performance of The Last Christmas Standard “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” running through the airport to say a last-minute goodbye. Maybe it’s too much, even without Sam the drummer-gymnast, but it honestly feels good right here, you know?1 The “romance” here is between two children, but the actual love in this story is the big moment at the end where Sam runs up to hug Daniel and the brass in the score swells, and you are meant to see the real formation of a lifelong bond that goes beyond the childhood crush. It’s thick and it’s syrupy, and maybe you can choke it down at Christmas.
ACQUITTED. I mean, at the end of the day, you’re going to tearfully embrace this one or roll your eyes at it. I think it’s sweet.
NEXT: Come back here on Christmas Eve to wrap this all up.