Review: Love Actually

Love Actually is the kind of movie I tend to avoid. You know the kind: sweet “romantic comedies” that only the lobotomized can’t figure out the outcome of within 15 minutes of their beginning. Where you know that these people are going to get together after you sit though the long list of false obstacles constructed by a screenwriter in need of more pages.

These movies always feel something like pouring lemonade into a papercut–a little painful and a little sweet. But it being Christmas time, I decided to give a Christmas-set member of the genre a minor reprieve.

As anyone who has seen Love Actually, now four years old, can tell you, it doesn’t deviate much from that formula. Set in the weeks before Christmas the inevitable goal is, of course, to have a happy Christmas with the woman or man you love. But Love Actually multiplies that standard formula by what seems like 12.

Somewhat mercifully, this multiplicity means that obstacles to a happy reunion are far fewer. Each obvious pairing–and there’s no denying how obvious they are–has at most one obstacle to overcome before they live “happily ever after.”

The author living in France must only learn Portuguese to express his obviously-mutual love to his housekeeper. The English waiter must only go to America where he will meet the girls–yes, plural–of his dreams. The Prime Minister must only sack–that’s fire in America–his personal helper in order to make it acceptable to fall in love with her. The grade-schooler must only learn to play the drums to win the heart of his dear American, Joanna.

These scenarios are–whether intentionally or not–all a bit too easy. But I see the obvious ease with which these stories fall into place as a wink and a nudge toward the most tired traditions of the genre. A way that the film’s writer and director Richard Curtis tell us, without saying so explicitly, that he’s well aware of the contrivances that tend to lengthen such films.

Part of Love Actually‘s charm comes simply from the fact it doesn’t try too hard (read: much at all) to include the necessary bumps and troubles on the way to a happy ending. Indeed, some of the many stories don’t even have happy endings. But when the happy resolutions come they’re shoveled on so deep they nearly force you to smile. Sure they’re obvious contrivances, but the film invites us to revel in just how painfully obvious they are.

I would hardly put Love Actually on the top of my “Best Christmas Movies” list. It’s A Wonderful Life is almost certain to keep the top spot for ever. And the cheesy hits of Christmas Vacation, Home Alone, and A Christmas Story still are better in my book. There’s also the best Christmas/action movie ever, Die Hard, which will forever have a place in my heart.

Having said all that, Love Actually is a far more enjoyable Christmas “rom-com” than I originally expected. It could even win a spot on that long list of obligatory December flicks, though I’m not holding my breath for that.