So is this movie a triumph that makes you believe in the power of love while retaining a caustic wit? Or is this syrupy, sentimental pap pretending to be smarter than it actually is? Is Love Actually GOOD or BAD?
If you look for it, I have a sneaky feeling you’ll find that the reason people are always writing about this movie is because you can’t just file it in the “great” or “terrible” bin, and it gnaws at you. Most pro-Love Actually articles take a defensive, protective tone:1 yes, there are flaws, but ultimately this movie is so good these things don’t really matter. And most anti-Love Actually articles concede that some of the stories are funny or are legitimately sweet, but are ultimately compelled to condemn it.
For comparison, Garry Marshall made a bunch of movies exactly like this: New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, and Mother’s Day. People must have seen them because they made money, but those viewers are largely silent; they accept the movies for what they are and they’re not writing thinkpieces acknowledging any problematic aspects and how to get past them. And critics gave these movies poor reviews at the time, but they don’t drag their corpses out every year to give them a fresh beating, because who gives a shit?
I think the thing about Love Actually is that it’s so good that it makes you mad that it’s so bad. And maybe vice versa.
So what did I find, trying to look at this with clear eyes? Well, I gave five stories a pass (David/Natalie, John/Judy, Billy Mack/Joe, Harry/Karen/Mia, and Daniel/Sam/Joanna/Carol) and four stories a fail (Jamie/Aurelia, Colin/American Girls, Sarah/Karl, Juliet/Mark/Peter). So it looks on the one hand that it’s more good than bad. But the “stand-ins” storyline I judge pretty neutral; it’s cute and it doesn’t do anything wrong and it’s short, so it’s fine. And the Juliet/Mark/Peter storyline creates such a horrible gravity that threatens to collapse the rest of the movie; I certainly feel more strongly against that storyline than I feel strongly for any of the ones I like.
I thought about it, and although the Billy Mack/Joe storyline is the one that I think is without hesitation the best storyline, I think it’s the David/Natalie one that is the cornerstone of the film. If you took out Billy Mack/Joe, I think I would still watch this movie. If you took out David/Natalie? I’m not sure I’d ultimately think it’s worth it.
You could cut Colin/American Girls and Juliet/Mark/Peter and I wouldn’t miss them at all. Digitally excise them from the movie; I never need to see them again. Jamie/Aurelia, though, despite how inherently problematic the entire story is…I think I would miss it, honestly, grossness and all.
And Sarah/Karl…is well acted but it’s really out of place. I keep harping about this, but it feels telling that when Richard Curtis decided that there must be some bitter to balance the sweetness of his “ultimate romantic comedy,” the ones who got their hearts crushed were Laura Linney and Emma Thompson. The unbearably creepy Mark at least gets some closure to his love that must never be; Sarah has to keep pretending that everything is cool, and Karen must be the saintly mother and suppress her outrage at Harry for the sake of the children. Dudes can dream but women must face reality. I am one hundred percent certain Richard Curtis did not mean for this to be the case, but this is why we have the concept of unconscious bias.
So what’s the final analysis? I still can’t even tell you. It’s what makes Love Actually so perversely fascinating to me, that I can’t unabashedly embrace it or write it off. It’s not a “Let me not…admit impediments” kind of deal. I’ll admit all the impediments you can dig up, and I’ve dug up a bunch of my own over the past two weeks. But you know? I think I still love this movie. Maybe that’s a lesson. Maybe that’s love, that you accept the shit to get to the good stuff?
Thank you all for reading! This was a lot of fun.