A Look Back at Love Actually: The Sweet and the Bitter Collide

(Poster via Universal Studios)
A defense of a neglected comedy and cinematic tour de force

The BBC has released the results of its poll of the greatest film comedies of all time. Some Like It Hot topped the list, followed by Dr. Strangelove, Annie Hall, Groundhog Day, Duck Soup, Life of Brian, Airplane!, France’s Playtime, This Is Spinal Tap, and the Buster Keaton silent The General.

I was one of the 253 global film critics polled to assemble the list (way back in May — California’s presidential-election ballots take less time to count) and once again I find my taste is embarrassingly, boringly conventional. The BBC’s top pick was sixth on my list. Their number-two pick was also my number two; their number three was also my number three, and their number four was my number five. My number-one pick, His Girl Friday, was 14th in the BBC poll, my number four was their number 15, and my number ten, When Harry Met Sally . . . , was 29th in the poll. All ten of my picks landed in the BBC top 100 — except one.

I have Richard Curtis’s Love Actually at number seven. You may open fire at me in the comments or on Twitter.

I’ll allow that Love Actually isn’t one of the funniest comedies ever made, but the question posed by the BBC is about the greatest comedies. This is a different matter, and it’s why, for instance, Groundhog Day makes everyone’s list. Every time I watch Love Actually — since my wife and I used to watch it every Christmas, I think I’ve seen it more than any other film released this century — I’m bowled over again at the economy of the writing. Curtis wrote for television for many years (notably Blackadder) and he learned not to waste a second. The opening 20 minutes of the movie introduce, by my count, 13 principal characters, and we instantly understand who everyone is, though no one gets more than a couple of minutes of screen time, and each has a fully defined arc over the course of the movie, none of them behaving in a rote or predictable way. Steeped in the conventions of the romantic-comedy formula, Curtis comes up with one of the greatest meet-cutes of all time — two stand-ins in a porn movie who are total strangers obliged to simulate sex strike up a cautious friendship, an ingenious reversal of the usual progression. We’re only 16 minutes in when Curtis hits us with an absolutely brilliant tearjerker of a scene with mere glimpses of a slide show about a character we’ve never even met. Curtis somehow makes the Bay City Rollers’ “Bye Bye Baby” haunting. And it’s not even the first brilliant tearjerker in the movie.

The lazy critique of Curtis is that he’s sentimental or sticky. He makes chick movies, and who wants those? I’ll defend sentimentality in film with another column, but it’s not true that Curtis paints a cutesy candy-colored picture of life. His films are a collision of the sweet and the bitter, each made more pungent by the contrast. One character in Notting Hill is confined to a wheelchair; death looms over Four Weddings and a Funeral from the title onward; About Time is a lesson in coping with the loss of one’s father. Curtis ended season four of Blackadder, a World War I piece and the blackest of comedies, by killing off everyone in a foredoomed sally out of the trenches on the Western Front.

September 11 hangs over Love Actually, whose prologue sprang from a point Ian McEwan made shortly after the attacks: He observed that the passengers about to die on Flight 93 expressed love, not bitterness or retribution, in their final phone calls. Hugh Grant, playing the British prime minister, somberly expands on McEwan’s thought as the movie opens, and it’s the kind of important insight that hardly ever appears in a major drama, much less a comedy. Curtis’s work is suffused with a sense of struggle overcome by a resolve to carry on.

You could hardly design a romantic comedy that runs more smoothly, with so many interlocking parts.

All of that is just the first course. Then Curtis really gets to work. Coming up with a single indelible movie scene, the kind that people fondly talk about over drinks years later, is like creating a pop hook that makes people sing along in the car. Only the great talents can do it, and you’re a very fine filmmaker if you can do it once per movie. Love Actually is like an album that contains nothing but hits. Colin Firth’s writer losing his manuscript in the pond. Firth proposing marriage in Portuguese. The guy with the cue cards (Andrew Lincoln, later of The Walking Dead) proclaiming his futile love to Keira Knightley. The kid who lost his mom (Thomas Sangster, later of Game of Thrones) getting to play drums for his dream girl. Hugh Grant dancing to the Pointer Sisters. Alan Rickman watching Rowan Atkinson package the necklace. Bill Nighy admitting he actually likes his long-suffering manager more than anybody. Kris Marshall, the sad-sack Brit, improbably impressing three of the world’s great beauties in Wisconsin.

It may be that for some, finding the word “love” in a title causes intense gagging, and maybe they retch again when they arrive at the doubling down implicit in the word “actually.” It may be that they turn red when warned that a film stars Hugh Grant, one of the most magnificent comic actors of his era, or that the cast speak almost exclusively in upper-middle-class British accents. But you could hardly design a romantic comedy that runs more smoothly, with so many interlocking parts. Love Actually isn’t merely a holiday bonbon. It’s a tour de force.


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