Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Christmas Watch: Love Actually (2003)



People, sometimes a movie is so not aimed at you, all you can do is accept that fact, sit back, and just try to figure it out from an anthropological context.

I'm not going to try to claim Love Actually (2003) is a bad movie, but I will say that it is a movie that I didn't understand.  Credit where it's due - 14 years on, it's a bonafide modern holiday favorite with a fanbase large enough that for a decade after the film's release, studios kept trying to replicate what worked here for New Years, Valentine's Day, and maybe Mother's Day (I don't know.  I wasn't paying attention.).  And my good pal, SimonUK, talks about this movie quite a bit.  He frikkin' loves this movie.  He is, of course, English, and I think the cultural cues I was missing make much more sense to him.  Apparently the race to see who has the #1 Christmas song in England every year is a real thing (which, I know... weird).

Even I knew that this was a movie about a lot of people falling in love, facing the challenges of love, and defining love as something other than romantic or sexual.  What this means is that over the course of what I think was a 90-minute movie, about ten different stories played out as loosely tied vignettes.  Some of them better than others.  Some of them sweet and simple and some making me raise my hand and waiting to be called upon as I had so many questions.

Of the movie's run-time, I enjoyed the back 1/3rd of the movie, but found the first third grating and the middle third baffling and sometimes tedious.  I will say, the movie really did stick the landing in a way that nothing prior had suggested was coming.  I went from not-cracking-a-smile and checking my phone to actively engaged and actual laughing out loud.  I'm not sure I've ever had this experience before with a movie, where nothing changed about how I felt about what I was seeing previously by what I was now seeing - but I felt the quality of the movie quadrupled in just a scene or two and roughly maintained that level through to the end.

The movie is interesting in that it *does* get that love is not just the first few weeks of romance (although it can't help itself here and the inherent drama of will-they-or-will-they? as occurs in most rom-coms plays out).  The movie is bookended by scenes at Heathrow, both fictional and real, capturing the joy of the reunion with loved ones, whether that's with a partner, children, grandparents, what-have-you.  The movie knows love is family, friends, and longtime relationships, and a few of the storylines play out that way.  Weirdly, the storyline I thought would be about grief and grieving a lost spouse isn't that at all, and turns into the twee-est part of the movie about the love between father and son as son discovers romantic love.*

Also a bit on the nose was the easy trade a somewhat horse-faced Englishman makes on his accent and place of birth by just showing up in America.  I mean, it is uncomfortable to try and parse what the movie is trying to say about Americans through this sequence, but we all remember girls swooning over the dude with the accent back in school, so I'm not calling BS on this at all.

A movie that's weirdly cynical about actual romantic, longterm love versus the high of falling in love/ getting laid, Love Actually follows middle-class to rich Londoners in the weeks leading up to Christmas as they fumble about with new relationships.

Honestly, the thing that confused me the absolute most in the film was the High Grant storyline where the characters keep talking about how pudgy his love interest is.  Which... I guess if you start with Keira Knightley as your *average* bodytype, then we're all full of shame.  But I recall the weird body issues the British press seemed to be having at the turn of the Millennium which were in itself a bit of a story Stateside.  And even in storylines not tied to the PM's romance you see the body-shame paranoia riddled throughout the movie.

If Millennials want a lesson in how fast things change from a cultural perspective and want to know why us Gen-X'ers and our forebears, the Boomers, did not solve all issues just now getting a lot of traction in the media - they need look no further than Love Actually.  Because a hugely good chunk of the storylines include some form of workplace sexual harassment lit as romance.

Yes, I was confused why Alan Rickman was trying to set up Laura Linney with a co-worker (no.  No manager wants that in their office, and, no - you shouldn't do that.).  I was also confused by why Linney was "in love" with her coworker, because I don't recall two people on screen with less chemistry than these two in, really, any other movie.

Behold - a woman so overweight, everyone must comment upon it

Despite the fact it doesn't fill a full thirty minutes of the movie, the entire Hugh Grant wanting to schtup his social secretary storyline is worthy of several college theses.  Really, I'm still reeling from the suggestion that actress Martine McCutcheon was on the plus-sized-side.  I mean, I've been to Europe, and while folks are definitely fitter than Americans (myself included), it is flat out insane to claim she's of a weight anyone would comment on either way.  It's pretty gross this was the character's defining feature. And that a pretty big distraction in the movie when they keep bringing up how how supposedly pudgy and unwanted this totally normal and quite attractive person is.

Throw in that moving someone out of their job after witnessing them being harassed as if its their fault (which the movie makes it seems like Natalie fully thinks it's her fault the POTUS tries to molest her, which...) is grounds for a lawsuit, people.

Of course, none of that is as much of a Film 1 no-no as the entire, weird Colin Firth storyline that boils down to "banging the maid".  Actually, that would be a smidge less complicated, because what this movie posits is that the pathway to love is finding someone who can't talk to you, does all your chores and strips down to her underwear without hesitation.  That this passes every year as no-big deal while people go bananas trying to make a 1940's song about illicit snow-bound hanky-panky into a rape fantasy absolutely blows my goddamn mind.

I'd be more impressed with the Alan Rickman/ Emma Thompson storyline as Rickman is seduced by his office admin (also - another huge HR faux pas.  Jesus, Rickman), if it weren't the only story of a long-standing couple with kids in the movie.  Because it ends in "he'll stray and it'll ruin everything and you'll go forward in misery for the kids".  Merry Christmas.  Add in that the other longterm relationships end in (a) death and (b) Colin Firth's significant other cheating on him with maybe his brother? (I wasn't clear) - it's hard to get excited about where any of this is headed for any of our young lovers by movie's end.

But for pure, "what the hell is happening?" disquieting nonsense, Andrew Lincoln's storyline is just absolutely psychotic.  There is nothing romantic about anything that happens in this story, and were it not good looking rich people, this would be a "I Slept With Danger" type of Lifetime movie.  What we see is a weird fit as it's not "love" - which is something you get when two people talk to each other and get along.  It's - at best - infatuation, leading to a wedding tape he can't show anyone because it's all crazy-person close-ups of the bride's dental work.  The mess culminates in a scene that should have been met with the shrieks of violins, not a harmless yuletide backing carol as he stalks his would-be lover from her alleyway with shitty CD player and some stupid poster board notes.

Nothing about this storyline is okay, from everything Lincoln does to Knightley running out and thanking him with a kiss (do not encourage, Keira).  I guess it falls into the weird fantasy of people to be adored by everyone around them that we see in, oh, Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey.

And I know the world is a complicated place and people are complicated, but... ick.  Don't go confessing your love to your best friend's new wife that you've never spoken, whether it's a day or a month later.  Literally no good outcome is coming out of that.  And DO NOT hold up pictures of mostly nude models as part of your confession.  I do not even understand where he was going with that.  But, given that the movie-makers see all romance ending in death and infidelity, I guess you might as well get started early in blowing up your marriage and those of your best friends.

But, hey, the movie also sees young love of ten year olds as something that should be totally invested in, as - surprise - the girl doesn't even know the boy's name!  That's totally true love and not a grief-broken dad investing his energies into enabling something any mother of a 10-year-old girl is going to think is also psycho.

I guess I really hated this movie.

It has some funny stuff at the end, and I did like the final, dialed-in scene by Bill Nighy and his pal realizing they have a kind of love between them.  And while Laura Linney continues to grate like nails on a chalkboard just by showing up, I at least got her storyline.  And Martin Freeman's storyline was at least funny.  The PM singing to the kids was the best part, really.

I try not to apply too much in the way of modern interpretations of cultural norms when I watch a movie, but this one took place in an era of recent memory (for me, at age 42).  I don't want to apply unfair rules and biases that are not of the era in which the movie was created, and try to understand what they were doing and saying at the time while also reflecting how we might see these things now.  But we had some cultural norms about *some* of this stuff back then - even if the "admin blames herself for sexual harassment" bit landed a bit close to home with the most recent #MeToo movement.  In the end, this movie just lands oddly, insincerely and without seeming to quite grok that love actually takes a lot of work.  It's not just the thrill of the first kiss, keeping a spank tape of your friend's wife, appreciating someone from afar, or getting laid in Wisconsin.  While the movie basically understands hoo-mahns need hoo-mahns, it sort of struggles with what to do if you don't have a near unbreakable legal responsibility for other hoo-mahns.  And, like all rom-coms, thinks sex and infatuation = love. 

None of this would bug me so much if one didn't get the feeling the filmmakers saw this all as very sophisticated and urbane.  To me, it feels like the stuff EL James would have felt was a bit over the top for her work.  You can put people in posh apartments and fancy clothes and get actors who are, frankly, too good for the movie, but that doesn't change what occurs or that this all feels like it contains the emotional maturity of Floribama Shore.

Still, people love this thing, so, anymore than I grok why people buy Harlequin Romances or watch other rom-coms or get invested in Jim and Pam on The Office, I don't quite get it.






*Well, the second twee-est after Hugh Grant dancing around 10 Downing Street.

2 comments:

Stuart Ward said...

You, sir, are a heartless monster. #JimandPam4ever

Ryan Steans said...

I'll give Jim and Pam this: they killed the "will they or won't they" trope sitcoms had been milking since Season 1 of Cheers. Also give them this: they sealed the deal, but they did it the season I'd already quit watching.

Also, Ross and Rachel got me to quit watching "Friends". They flogged that poor dead horse to pulp.