Film & TV

Hail the Romcom Masterpiece

Hugh Grant and Martine McCutcheon in Love Actually (Universal Pictures)
If “cheesy” means false, contrived, cheap, and tawdry, Love Actually is the opposite of all these things.

Remember that great scene in Love Actually? I mean the one with the prime minister dancing to the Pointer Sisters. No, the one with the prime minister discovering his driver’s mighty baritone while caroling in the dodgy end of Wandsworth. How about the “To Me, You Are Perfect” scene? Or the musicians busting out “All You Need Is Love” in the church wedding. Rowan Atkinson’s overzealous package-wrapper. Or Billy Mack’s ridiculous Robert Palmer-style Christmas video. Or Billy Mack waggling his junk in the TV host’s face. Or Billy Mack confessing his love for his manager.

Maybe it’s Emma Thompson’s Joni Mitchell breakdown. Or Alan Rickman’s “a classic fool” lament. “There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?” The crushing “Bye, Bye Baby” slideshow that makes us tear up for a character we haven’t even met. Colin Frissell unintentionally insulting the caterer. No, Colin Frissell hooking up with the three lovelies in Wisconsin.

All wrong: It’s the fractured-Portuguese wedding proposal. No, it’s the mad dash to save the terrible mystery novel as its pages blow away in the pond. Or it’s the girl busting out “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” “Would we call her chubby?” What about the climactic airport reunions?

Maybe it’s just the whole film, actually.

You don’t often hear the phrase, “Romantic-comedy masterpiece,” do you? It seems off, like “Great wines of Idaho” or “Dream vacations of Uzbekistan.” We stand wary of granting too much praise to this genre above all. It slinks around disreputably with vaguely shameful baggage. It embarrasses us to say we like it. Vaguely aware of this sinister phenomenon called “Critical consensus,” fearful of casting ourselves as having cheesy or sentimental taste, we find it far easier to toss laurels at dark crime epics, twisted dramas, dystopian sci-fi.

Dark. It’s one of the defining words of our culture. “Dark” gets respect. “Dark” gets the benefit of the doubt. “Dark” means being taken seriously, gets upheld as the standard. Ingmar Bergman felt no need to prove himself by making a Jim Carrey movie, yet every comic yearns to go dark, to assert his relevance, to prove himself.

This is odd, because the default characteristics for life are dark, dim, depressing. To exist is to submit to suffering and decline and extinction. Given our human predicament, it’s really quite a lot easier to depress than it is to uplift. Finding the angst and gloom in life is like finding grains of sand in Kuwait. The degree of difficulty for Richard Curtis, the writer-director of Love Actually — his first film rarely gets acknowledged. Isn’t it easy to make a nice, sweet movie with a happy ending? No, it isn’t. Not one that people watch again and again. Not one that has a dozen scenes that fix themselves in the memory. Not one that pours so much happiness into our souls.

As a movie critic, I hardly ever watch a movie more than once, because there’s always something new that I really must see. Love Actually (now streaming on HBO) holds the distinction of being the movie I have watched far more than any other in this century: My wife and I saw it when it was first released in 2003, and we have watched it nearly every December since. Love Actually allusions pop up in YouTube parodies, in TV commercials, off-Broadway in a musical-comedy spoof, on friends’ social media feeds. A group of journalists I know holds a joint watching party every year, with everyone commenting excitedly on Facebook as they watch. This year twice! I’ve heard Billy Mack’s infamous cover “Christmas Is All Around” pop up on the SiriusXM holiday tunes channel. A satire of meretricious Christmas pablum has become so familiar that it’s becoming a tongue-in-cheek Christmas classic itself. Sixteen years after its release, Love Actually is an established classic.

You don’t often hear that because film critics, despite being writers by trade, are far more interested in mise-en-scène and mood and image than in the chief purpose of movies, which is storytelling. Curtis pulls off a spectacular feat of screenwriting, expertly defining 16 principal characters and their relationships, providing each one with a beginning, middle, and end, and making us care about what happens to all of them, plus a few ancillary figures. He does all of this without resorting to cliché: Those memorable scenes I mentioned stick in the mind because they’re so inventively imagined that even after you’ve seen them a dozen times, they still sparkle. We watch again and again because Curtis and his delightful cast sell these characters as real people who are worth the emotional investment.

Even some of the most highly acclaimed movies by the most gifted filmmakers fall short of making us care about anybody in the show, even when taking three and a half hours to do so. Ross Douthat, in a perspicacious reaction to Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, notes that “the screenwriting/editing failure is that the movie, while extraordinarily long, also sometimes feels too short.”

How can that be? The movie lacks Curtis’s laser-guided focus: Each scene in Love Actually is so cunningly engineered you have to get out your stopwatch to savor the efficiency. Within 95 seconds of Hugh Grant’s appearance on screen, we learn who he is (a handsome Tony Blair), what he needs (a girl), why we like him (he’s warm, genuine, funny and unpretentious), and who that girl must be (Downing Street staffer Natalie). Ninety-five seconds. We also meet and come to adore Natalie — in 25 of those seconds.

Go back to The Irishman, which “isn’t quite long enough to let all the episodes and substories and minor characters live and breathe and work cumulatively toward a common end,” Douthat writes, correctly. Scorsese’s movie is for all of its cinematic excellence, lush design, and elegiac tone sloppy and inelegant as a work of storytelling. “Important characters such as Sheeran’s wife and Hoffa’s foster son don’t come into focus, a mid-movie subplot involving a mobster named Crazy Joe Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco) feels truncated and underexplained,” Douthat adds, and the central relationship between mobster Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa “seems like it needed a few more establishing scenes to really click.” And a couple of Christmas lobsters.

I mean that: Curtis’s Christmas lobsters are his originality. Though the romcom must hew to a formula, so must the mob movie. It’s the surprises you devise within your genre that make the movie excel, or not. What, in the three and a half hours of The Irishman, is truly surprising? What scenes will implant themselves in the imagination? Does it really have much impact if you walk away from it with a shrug? I pose the same questions to a thousand other acclaimed “important” movies that dissolved over time. The Oscar nomination that should have gone to Bill Nighy for his unsurpassable portrayal of Billy Mack instead went to Tim Robbins for Mystic River (or maybe to Alec Baldwin for The Cooler, Benicio del Toro for 21 Grams, Djimon Hounsou for In America, or Ken Watanabe for The Last Samurai — five mediocre-to-poor films no one watches anymore). Staggeringly un-memorable films such as Cold Mountain, American Splendor, Monster, and Seabiscuit piled up Oscar nominations that year while Love Actually got zero; go ahead, try to get your Facebook friends excited about a viewing party for American Splendor. But, hey, it was “dark,” though.

Romcoms are comfort food, yes, and we watch them with family around the holidays in a spirit of mutual reassurance and conviviality. But they can’t cheat their way to lodging in the memory any more than any other type of film can. If “cheesy” means false, contrived, cheap, and tawdry, Love Actually is the opposite of all these things. Andrew Lincoln makes us feel for poor Mark as he haplessly presents his cue-card sorrows to Keira Knightley’s Juliet. Hugh Grant makes us believe a world-famous celebrity might go door-to-door talking to ordinary Londoners (and Grant has indeed done so during the current British political campaign season). Emma Thompson could be someone’s betrayed wife, and has been; Rowan Atkinson really could be that annoying, and often is. Four days after 9/11, Ian McEwan published the essay that provided the framing for  Love Actually: “And that is what they were all saying down their phones, from the hijacked planes and the burning towers. There is only love, and then oblivion.” True on 9/11, but also true in general: It’s love against the darkness. Funny how many seem to be rooting for the wrong side.

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