The Tuesday Zone: ‘Love, Actually’, the Standard Ensemble Romcom

The Tuesday Zone

This is the 100th post on this site.  Exciting, I know.  So what are we doing to celebrate 100 posts of fantastic movie criticism and analysis?

Nothing at all!  I just happen to be the 100th post, so you’re getting an extra helping of Tuesday Zone.  I hope you enjoy, because no one else is cooking today.

Coinciding with our 100th post, the holidays are officially over, which means that I can do what we all do every time this joyous season finally wraps up: take all the niceties away and go back to being critical and unsatisfied.

On that cheerful note, remember last week’s post?  It was a very special Christmas post, in that I looked at the 2003 holiday rom-com Love, Actually and did my best to stay away from the more gender-y bits of it.  After all, it’s a holiday favorite of mine and many others. But this week, I’m cheating and doing the same movie, but this time with a harsher view of some of the representations in it.

But first!  Here’s a quick refresher: Love, Actually is a romantic comedy ensemble piece about nine somewhat-interlocking love stories.  They all take place in London (mostly) during the five weeks leading up to Christmas.  So, for this article (post? analytical masterpiece?) I’m going to tackle each of the stories and see what they’re trying to tell us, or what they’re not at all trying to tell us but say anyways.  At the end, I’m also going to make a brief comment on why I’m doing this kind of analysis, so if you’re not interested in the play by play, skip down to the very last paragraph.

John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page):

Plot Summary: John and Judy are body doubles for sex scenes in a movie.  They are both comfortable with their jobs but awkward with each other.  They have comic small-talk whilst pretending to have sex and we watch as their chemistry develops.

Pictured: Chemistry with Dr. Watson.

Universal Pictures Pictured: Chemistry with Dr. Watson.

This might be the lightest of all the stories in terms of emotional weight.  It’s rather delightful and quite funny, but it doesn’t have as much of an edge as some of the others.  Nothing particularly problematic or fantastic with this section, although I will say it was definitely a refreshing story for the (ironically) conservative romantic comedy genre.

Colin (Kris Marshall) and American Stereotypes (Elisha Cuthbert, Shannon Elizabeth, et al.)

Plot Summary: Colin is a skeezy, tasteless young Brit who decides to go to America to meet “real women.” He meets American women and has a foursome or something like that.

This story line is similar to the John and Judy storyline in that it’s pretty light, but it’s very different in terms of offensiveness.  This part of the movie is awful.  When Colin arrives at an American bar, he meets a caricature of the dumb/sexy stereotype.  The girl is immediately attracted to his accent and introduces him to all her friends.  They all agree that he should stay at their place.  In what might be some of the most shameless dialogue ever written, they reveal that their apartment is cramped and they’d all have to share a bed.  Also, they’ll have to sleep naked, for some reason?

The real American Dream, apparently.

Universal Pictures The real American Dream, apparently.

This storyline isn’t even cute, really.  It’s just awful. I waited the entire movie for some clever twist, or point, but that moment never came.  It’s the worst kind of writing and storytelling.  None of the women are human at all.  They’re just goals for the pathetic Colin, and he manages to get them all at once because he has a funny accent.  This is one of the worst story lines i’ve seen in a romantic comedy and, damn it, I saw All About Steve.

Kidding.  I definitely did not watch All About Steve.

Fox 2000 Pictures I jest. I did not see All About Steve.

Moving right along before I make this entire article about that Colin and the cowgirls….

David (Hugh Grant) and Natalie (Martine McCutcheon)

Plot Summary: David is the newly elected Prime Minister.  He’s single (“married to [his] job”) and takes a liking to his unique, foul-mouthed, fairly awesome junior member of household staff Natalie.  Unfortunately, he realizes that this relationship would be unprofessional and shuffles her to a different department.

This is one of the bigger stories in Love, Actually, and it has a bit of good and bad in it.  The good is that Natalie is at least unique.  Whereas the American girls in the Colin story are too shallow to be in a 1950s kitchenware advert, Natalie is distinct and has character.  She lacks the proper filter, does what she wants within reasonable bounds, and (as the movie decides to point out) isn’t model-thin.  David is attracted to all of these, and it’s fun to see their playful romance unfold.

Then, this storyline takes an unfortunate turn.  When David walks in on the President of the U.S. flirting heavily with Natalie, he has her shuffled into a different department because he realizes that he can’t treat the relationship professionally.  Well, the first problem here is that she’s being punished for his inability to control his emotions.  Maybe it’s the best solution for him, but it seems unfair.  Even worse is when Natalie later describes the incident, and it comes across as something very much like sexual harassment.  David jumps to conclusions and Natalie is at the mercy of men who refuse to treat her with respect.  Worst off, she is the one that apologizes to David.  Twice, I think.

Also, I can’t decide how I feel about the movie’s jokes concerning her weight.  For reference: this is Natalie.

She's so big she practically takes up a small fraction of the frame.

Universal Pictures She’s so big that she practically takes up a small fraction of the frame.

A couple characters make reference to her as overweight, which is obviously wrong.  David is as baffled as we are to hear these comments, and I really couldn’t decide if this was lowbrow humor or the movie poking fun at our perceptions of obesity.  Maybe it’s some English humor that I’m just not picking up on.  I’ll let you all decide this one.

Jamie (Colin Firth[!!!]) and Aurélia (Lúcia Moniz)

Plot Summary: Jamie has recently discovered that his wife is a cuckold (great word, no? Cuckold.) and goes to his cottage in France to write.  He gets a new housekeeper, a Portuguese woman named Aurélia whose grasp of English is as good as Jamie’s grasp of Portuguese. The two manage to connect still and we see their romance blossom.

This one is fairly cute.  It’s interesting to see how these two connect despite not speaking the same language.  The only problem early on is a bit of uncomfortable ogling done by Jamie and the camera when he and Aurélia jump into a lake.

I believe this is the scene.

BBC I believe this is the scene.

But in general I liked how these two grow to respect and care for each other. Also, they both try to learn each others’ language entirely independent of each other.  This felt rather egalitarian and, I’ll admit, it was funny to watch Colin Firth struggle with Portuguese.

I will say, though, that when Jamie tries to find Aurélia in her home neighborhood, there are some less-than-fantastic moments.  Namely, there’s the scene where Jamie arrives at the house and tells Aurélia’s father that he wants to marry his daughter.  The joke is that the father thinks he wants to marry his other daughter, who is much less attractive, effectively making the sister’s weight and physical appearance the punchline.

Get it?! It's funny because no one could ever want to marry her!

Universal Pictures Get it?! It’s funny because no one could ever want to marry her!

This is a fairly mean-spirited gag.  Moreover, most of the neighbors seem to think that the father is selling Aurélia to Jamie because he’s English.  I can’t help but feel like that’s a bit…off.  Although maybe I need to read up more on the culture of Portuguese neighborhoods in France.

Daniel (Liam Neeson) and Sam (Thomas Sangster)

Plot Summary: Daniel’s wife has recently passed away, and he’s left trying to take care of his stepson Sam on his own.  Sam, he learns, is in love with a girl from school, and they both try to move past their grief by teaming up on this new venture.

First of all, this part of the movie is adorable.  Sam is one of those world-is-my-oyster kids and Liam Neeson is the perfect balance of great father-figure and hilarious friend.  The only issue I had with how this is carried out is that Daniel is constantly trying to work with Sam to find things he can do to make the girl, Joanna, fall in love with him.  He never really suggests, well, talking to her and being himself.  He gets to that eventually, but for too long they view obtaining Joanna’s attention as a game, as if her affections have a password lock on them that they need to crack.

"Is it 'drums'?  How about 'drums1'?"

Universal Pictures “Is it ‘drums’? How about ‘drums1’?”

Also, one minor quibble:  Daniel is an emotionally torn widower, and when he cries in front of his friend Karen (Emma [goddamn] Thompson), she tells him to stop because people hate sissies and no one will sleep with him if he’s always crying. While I understand that this was her way to help him move past his grief, it was a disappointing line.  I mean, Daniel has no one to talk to and is severely depressed that he just lost his wife.  Do we really need to enforce the stereotype that men can’t cry?

Sarah (Laura Linney) and Karl (Rodrigo Santoro)

Plot Summary: Sarah is totally into the devilishly handsome Karl, but her attempted relationship with him is broken up by her need to take care of her brother Michael, who is older but has an unnamed mental illness.

This storyline was interesting because the romance is well developed.  Sarah and Karl have a mutual interest and pursue each other.  I haven’t made up my mind about the brother aspect, though.  At one level, I respect her for putting family first, but at the same time, we wonder if she will ever be able to live her life.  Karl seemed like a decent guy and she was really into him, but her adamance to see her brother anytime he needs her ruined it.  Is she noble or perhaps too selfless?

She has what might be called "steel willpower".

Universal Pictures She has what might be called “steel willpower”.

The moral dilemma is intriguing, too, but I guess my complaint is that this storyline is a bit…too heavy when compared to the other stories.  It feels out of place.  I haven’t made up my mind whether this was a good sequence to include for balance, or really uneven.

Harry (Alan Rickman), Karen (Emma Thompson), and Mia (Heike Makatsch)

Plot Summary: Harry and Karen are married, but Harry’s secretary Mia starts to show an active interest in him.  He contemplates an affair.

This one is really disappointing for the reason many stories about affairs are: the woman that tempts Harry, Mia, is disgustingly one-dimensional.  The movie treats her like a heartless demon that only wishes to steal Harry because she’s some sort of harlot.  If you want evidence, take a look at her costume for the office Christmas party.

And the Oscar for Most Subtle Costuming goes to....

Universal Pictures And the Oscar for Most Subtle Costuming goes to….

The entire sequence is fairly awkward and tasteless, to be honest.  But there are some ups, and all of them are due to Emma Thompson.  She becomes increasingly aware of her husbands interest in Mia, and Thompson’s performance shows us how increasingly distraught Karen is, but also her impeccable strength.  She sees the weaknesses in her husband but handles it in the most appropriate way she can as a wife and a mother.  Most importantly, there’s no scene where Karen freaks out at Mia for being a “man-stealer” or whatever happens in most movies with this scenario.  Karen never shifts the blame from Harry.  While Mia is hardly an angel, she also realizes who deserves to take the heat for what’s happening.  Plus one for that, Love, Actually.

Juliet (Keira Knightley), Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Mark (Andrew Lincoln)

Plot Summary: Juliet and Peter are newlyweds, and Juliet tries to befriend Peter’s BFF Mark, who is cold and distant to her.  She slowly realizes (much slower than the audience does) that Mark is actually in love with her.

Well, excluding the implausibility that two people could be in love with Keira Knightley (kidding, kidding), this story made me slightly uncomfortable for a couple of reasons.  One is that Mark’s love for Juliet is weird.  It’s more of an infatuation, and the end of the story is strange.  I’m not gonna bother talking much about it.

Although I will show this picture one more time.

Universal Pictures Although I will show this picture one more time.

The other is a bit more over-analytical, but bear with me.  Have you noticed anything about all the adult relationships in this movie?  They’re all white, heterosexual couples.  That’s fine, of course, although it’s a bit uniform for a movie with over half a dozen love stories that’s supposed to be about how love is all around us.  Here, though, we have our one interracial (adult, as I don’t really tend to count Sam and Joanna) relationship and the driving plot in this story is that the best friend is in danger of subverting the marriage.  It doesn’t mean anything huge, and it’s not some disastrous flaw, but I certainly found it worth consideration.  The only relationship that’s not a white, heterosexual adult couple is placed in a story that’s ultimately about just that.  Obviously you shouldn’t force diversity, but, well, I noticed it, and now I’ve mentioned it.

Moving on.

Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) and Joe (Gregor Fisher)

Plot Summary: Billy Mack, an ex-rock legend, re-records the song “Love Is All Around” as a Christmas track.  Along with his manager Joe, he tours the interview circuit and makes a series of inappropriate comments as he tries to make his song the number one single on Christmas Day, rather than some teenybopper crap.

This story is also on the lighter side and mostly serves as comic relief, but I really liked it.  Billy Mack’s attempt at resurgence ties a lot of the movie together and really is rather funny.  Moreover, the love story is different but very interesting.  Ultimately, it’s about the love and bond of friendship, which Love, Actually treats as valuably as it does romantic relationships.  There is some “manly banter” as the two try to harden over the emotions they share, but that’s to be expected from two emotionally stunted men.  Ultimately, their bromance (although I really hesitate to use that term) is genuine and a nice change of pace.

There's even the quintessential "bro hug."

Universal Pictures There’s even the quintessential “bro hug.”

So there you have it.  Love, Actually, while delightful and very fun to watch, has a lot of the issues that tend to come with romcoms.  If any of you stuck this out, thank you for reading, and I’d like to make one last, brief comment on this kind of analysis.  While I was writing this article, I ran into this tumblr post (which coincidentally mentions Love, Actually). If you have the time, give the whole thing a read, but one comment I particularly like is this: “It’s entirely possible to like and even love problematic media while consuming it critically, while acknowledging its flaws.” That’s all this is.  I love this movie, but I’m also recognizing its flaws because, well, they’re there, and it doesn’t hurt to be aware of them.  Although I’m sure many people do this (and some just don’t care), consider watching even casual movies with a critical lens.  That lens is a good tool to have for movies.  Hell, it’s a good tool to have for life.

This is the part where you all say, “And to 100 more!”

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