The most obvious display of such manipulation comes, not surprisingly, at the obligatory funeral scene. An unwritten rule in melodrama that stretches back to the days of “Steel Magnolias” suggests the following: the easiest way to earn an audience’s loyalty is to show characters at the epicenter of grief, and then drastically alter their moods with a totally random moment that juxtaposes their sorrow with a momentary roar of humor. A funeral becomes an ideal plot device to experiment with such antics. More often than not, these scenarios don’t pan out to something of merit because they contradict the implications of human nature; it’s just not believable that everyone at a fresh gravesite will unite in a single marriage of chuckles, even with plausible performances dictating the tone. One of the more recent offenses occurred in “P.S. – I Love You” – one of the most cringe-inducing films of recent memory – which in turn was inspired by a scene in this movie with almost disheartening precision. When poor, grieving Daniel (Liam Neeson) is required to appear at the funeral of his beautiful wife in the early moments of the picture, eulogies turn into anecdotes so crass that it’s a wonder no one in the church cried out in protest.
I despise phony sentiment. The mere presence of it in any movie is cause enough to contemplate the motives of filmmakers, but “Love, Actually” is so saturated by the concept that it inspires outright resentment in all those involved. We hopelessly stare at the screen for 135 minutes like eyewitnesses at a disaster, where characters lack the sensibility to detect their situations and submit to the will of a screenplay that moves them through one cliché after another, and for no purpose of comedy, human interest or romantic believability. And with a cast as talented as this participating in such maudlin narrative values, you have to wonder how almost none of them manage to pick up on any of the obvious cues. Did great actors like Alan Rickman and Colin Firth genuinely believe they were playing part in something thoughtful or well intentioned? Seldom have we seen such an extensive ensemble of talent in the movies yanked through the material like lambs on their way to a slaughter.
Allow me to set up a few scenarios for emphasis. The movie takes place in the month leading up to the Christmas holiday, in a moment where a collective set of lives – some of which interlock only by coincidence or vague association, if any – sits back in contemplation of what the season of good tidings really means to all of them. Many of them are lonely, including the new British Prime Minister David (Hugh Grant), who has no romantic connection to speak of; others, like the seemingly happy Karen (Emma Thompson), find similar feelings even in the presence of lifelong mates (in her case, a big figurehead at a design agency played by Alan Rickman). Others still are obligated to endure such states of being because they either have not figured out how to appreciate what they have (example: a washed up recording artist played by Bill Nighy) or have familial associations that take precedent over all other inklings to be find successful romance (such as the Laura Linney character, who has none of her own because, well, she spends so much time with her mentally imbalanced brother).
Meanwhile, grief afflicts the hearts of Daniel (Neeson) and his stepson Sam (Thomas Sangster), who are both figuring out how to make it through the holidays after the death of Sam’s mother. Their sense of loss is echoed by Mark (Andrew Lincoln), who carries a hidden torch for his best friend’s wife Juliette (Kiera Knightley) but knows he will be incapable of capitalizing on those feelings (though he must, inevitably, make them known by the final series of climaxes). And then, of course, there’s the presence of a character (in this case, one played by Colin Firth) who will discover an infidelity of his own wife and then drift off into his own self-imposed isolation in order to grieve the circumstances… because after all, is there any worse feeling than that of rejection or betrayal, especially at a time when the holidays should be bringing us all together in joy?
All of these scenarios, each handled as fully isolated stories, are forage for a plot that has no incentive to develop anything beyond the Hallmark-infused sentiment that love – in whatever form – really is the universal key to happiness. More than likely, that plodding concept occurs predominantly because the screenplay is too overwhelmed with the predicament of keeping names and faces straight; with almost a dozen specific story arcs to juggle in a movie just over two hours, it has not the time (nor the foresight) to develop them to any point of deep or meaningful insight. On the other hand, some of the narrative decisions reek of patronizing intensions that come from a place of shameless calculation. Consider, for instance, the subplot between the Neeson character and his stepson, who at a very young age has decided he has fallen in love with an American girl in his class with the same name as his deceased mother. Daniel protests initially (because hey, what does a young boy really know about being in love?), but because the screenplay demands all of its characters to converge in a unity of holiday spirit, he indulges young Sam’s attempts to woo his classmate throughout the course of the picture, which inevitably culminates in that all-too-familiar chase sequence in an airport terminal where the love-struck lad reaches his crush just before she boards the plane for America to announce his admiration. And if you suspect that the sickening sweetness of that moment is not matched equally by many other discoveries littered through the movie, you are not thinking like the director of “Love Actually.”
The screenplay is such a confused jumble of obvious parallels and simple-minded chaos that not even Robert Altman, the master of ensembles, could have salvaged much from it. What tone is it really going for? While many of the stories are interlaced with forlorn sensibilities as a launching point, not all of them end with suitable outcomes. That would be okay in an endeavor smart enough to sense the dimensions of human interaction, but this movie feigns candor. What relevance is there, then, to the Laura Linney story arc, especially when it unfairly dangles her on the razor’s edge of romantic passions before pulling her back to a final bleak reality? What purpose is there to the Rickman character’s wandering eye if it will ultimately culminate in a moment of hurt for his wife Karen, even though he will catch himself before actually following through with an infidelity? In an endless display of emotional hop-scotch through performances of ridiculous sincerity, only Nighy, playing an obnoxious singer trying to cut a hit holiday record, seems to be in on the joke. That awareness certainly informs the film’s greatest scene, in which he finishes a vocal take in the recording booth and turns to his manager to validate an underlying cynicism: “this is shit, isn’t it?” he asks. “Yep, solid gold shit, maestro,” the manager responds. I prefer to imagine that they are talking about more than just the record.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Comedy/Drama/Romance (US); 2003; Rated R for sexuality, nudity and language; Running Time: 135 Minutes
Liam Neeson: Daniel
Alan Rickman: Harry
Emma Thompson: Karen
Colin Firth: Jamie
Andrew Lincoln: Mark
Kiera Knightley: Juliette
Chiwetel Ejiofor: Peter
Bill Nighy: Billy Mack
Hugh Grant: David
Laura Linney: Sarah
Rodrigo Santoro: Karl
Martin Freeman: John
Produced by Tim Bevan, Liza Chasin, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Duncan Kenworthy and Chris Thompson; Directed and written by Richard Curtis