Monday, December 15, 2014

Nick's Pick: Love Actually

Film: Love Actually
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

This is the twelfth in a monthly series of reviews suggested by Nick Jobe of YourFace.

Love Actually bills itself as the ultimate romantic comedy. Everytime ad copy or promotional materials use the word “ultimate,” a part of me hopes its used in the sense of “last one ever.” Rom-coms aren’t my favorite genre of film, mostly because they end up being formulaic. They aren’t generally so much about what ending we’re going to get, but how we’re going to get to the ending we want. Good rom-coms are worth seeking out, and I’ve heard enough good about Love Actually that I was hopeful.

I’m not going to do my typical summary for this one, though, because there’s just too damn much. There are nine or ten intertwined plots here, with connections that go from story to story. It’s complicated enough that the Wikipedia write-up contains a flow chart that manages to get a couple of the connections wrong. There are a couple of main stories and a larger number of secondary, or at least smaller ones that aren’t as central to the various major narratives.

In the main, Love Actually succeeds in giving the audience what it wants. Most of the stories have happy endings, although the film is smart enough not to have its potentially romantic couples bat 1.000. A few of them have downbeat ends, which adds a touch of realism to a genre not generally noted for being too realistic. For a wonder, though, I tended to like the stories that had the goofy and happy rom-com endings more than the downers, although there’s an exception or two here.

Rather than a plot summary, I’ve decided to rank the nine stories from favorite to least favorite. I’m going to use the actors’ names instead of character names just for the sake of simplicity.

1) Bill Nighy as an aging pop start looking to make a comeback with a cheesy Christmas song. He figures out that his life is pretty barren and realizes by the end who the true love of his life is. It’s awesome because Bill Nighy’s character is the most entertaining person in the film, bar none.
2) Newly-elected Prime Minister Hugh Grant finds himself attracted to his assistant Martine McCutcheon and stands up to American President Billy Bob Thornton in defense of her. It’s cute, and it’s the sort of thing Hugh Grant is meant to play.
3) Movie stand-ins Martin Freeman and Joanna Page meet on a film set while standing in for sex scenes. They’re perfectly comfortable with each other while naked and simulating sex but shy with each other everywhere else. It’s very sweet, and the film could have stood a lot more of them.
4) Colin Firth discovers his girlfriend cheating on him with his brother and goes to France. There he meets Sienna Guillory, his Portuguese-speaking housekeeper, who he falls for despite the language barrier. This one ends in the grand rom-com gesture, but it’s damn good.
5) Liam Neeson and son Thomas Sangster mourn the death of their wife and mother. The boy then reveals he has a crush on a girl in school and comes up with a way to make her notice him. This one would be higher except it not only succumbs to a grand rom-com gesture, it dips wholly into rom-com cliché territory.
6) Kris Marshall leaves England for America in search of sex. He finds it by walking into what is essentially a porn set and ends up returning to England with Shannon Elizabeth. It’s mildly funny, but also broad caricature, so it didn’t really grab me.
7) Alan Rickman is married to a sort of frigid Emma Thompson, who happens to be Hugh Grant’s sister. Heike Makatsch, Rickman’s employee, makes overt sexual overtones to him, and he buys her an expensive Christmas gift, which Emma Thompson finds out about, putting their marriage in trouble. This one just never held together for me. I didn’t buy it when Rickman’s character started looking to stray, so it all hung together poorly.
8) Laura Linney is madly in love with co-worker Rodrigo Santoro. They finally start to hook up, but the evening is spoiled by constant phone calls from her mentally ill brother Michael Fitzgerald. I get the failed relationship part of this, but it seems awfully shallow on the part of Rodrigo Santoro’s character.
9) Last and least, Keira Knightley and Chiwetel Ejiofor get married. Ejiofor’s best friend Andrew Lincoln has always been cold to Knightley, but it’s because he’s in love with her and not because he dislikes her. He admits this to her in a pure cheese moment. Parts of this one felt kind of creepy, and it loses a lot of points for criminally underusing Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is much better than his five minutes or so on screen. Also, in a slightly different context, the behavior exhibited here isn’t romantic but creepy and stalkerish.

There’s a lot to like with this film, but it’s simply too busy. I get what it’s going for and it succeeds in many cases, but even the stories that get the most play are still too short and I want more of them. In a perfect world, I’d cut three or four stories and expand the ones left. A couple of the stories—the one with Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson in particular—would be a lot better with more space to play out. Still, I can see why a lot of people have made this a holiday tradition.

I liked this pretty well. Based on the ranking above, I liked about half the stories and didn’t like about half, but the ones I liked I liked a lot. The ones I didn’t like had potential that wasn’t fulfilled in general except the last couple. I’ll call this a win. Nick, you finish the year at 9.5 out of 12, which is a pretty solid year.

Why to watch Love Actually: Most of the stories are good.
Why not to watch: A couple of them aren’t.

8 comments:

  1. I love this movie a lot. It's one of my favorite romantic comedies of all time. I agree that having some of the stories not work out adds a little depth to it, although they aren't really my favorite ones, either. I'd probably put the Laura Linney story at the bottom of my list.

    I never thought about ranking the stories within the film. Your last place story would be much higher on my list. If it makes you feel any better he ended up going off and killing a lot of zombies on AMC. :-)

    Yes, the guy meeting the American girls went way over the top, but I got a big laugh out of it, too. According to the commentary it was the actresses that kept adlibbing more and more outrageous things and the director ended up including most of them. I loved the bit where they are having him say things, getting off on his English accent, then get disappointed when one of the things he repeats ends up sounding exactly the same when he says it.

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    1. I can see loving it. There's a lot to like here. It's worth saying that while I'm about 50/50 on whether I like the stories or not, the ones I like I like a lot and the ones I don't like I was just sort of disappointed in.

      The Laura Linney story seems kind of harsh to me, but the one I have on the bottom gets there for having creeper overtones. Seriously, change the music and that's the start of the third act of a horror film.

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  2. An interesting idea to rank all the stories. If you rank them by likely real world status, you would get a different listing. Also if you did them based on humor or cleverness. I appreciated you selections, I don't have most of your reservations, I'm all in for the schmaltz.

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    1. Sometimes schmaltz works. I tend not to fall for it, but here, the schmatlzier the better, evidently.

      Yeah, a movie like this really isn't a lot about reality--it's about the fantasy, and I'm cool with that.

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  3. I'm with Chip on this. I love this movie, and I also would rank the Andrew Lincoln/Keira Knightley story higher. It does, after all, have one of the best and most iconic moments of the film within it (the cue-card declaration of love). If I were to rank them from favorite to least favorite...

    1) Colin Firth--it's just so sweet! And the big climax is hilarious
    2) Hugh Grant--it's just so charming!
    3) Liam Neeson--I love the step-dad bonding with his step-son and the grand nature of its climax.
    4) Bill Nighy--Good, but it's how it ends that really makes it great.
    5) Andrew Lincoln--Creepy, maybe, but it has some great moments.
    6) Martin Freeman--Great all around, but too short!
    7) Kris Marshall--One of the ones I'd probably cut, because it doesn't really fit... but it's still funny (like the "say ____" bit at the table).
    8) Alan Rickman--It's the Rowan Atkinson scene that makes this one good.
    9) Laura Linney--My least favorite. It's such a downer! I know it's important thematically, but... ugh, it's just so blah.

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    1. I get the ranking. If I had to make a change to the movie I'd give a lot more time to Martin Freeman and Joanna Page. It's such a great story that it could use another 10 minutes spent in their presence. I'd like more of them off the set being awkward around each other.

      I even get why the climax of the Liam Neeson and son story works the way it does, but it still hits too much into cliche for me to take it that seriously. The cue-card love declaration might be iconic, but it's also really creeperish. In the real world, that would likely end up with a restraining order. And Chiwetel Ejiofor is still criminally underused in that story. More Chiwetel!

      Evidently, the original cut of the film was well over 3 hours long, which is why some of the stories end up with short shrift.

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    2. I agree more Freeman and Ejiofor would have been better. At the time this film was made, though, they were far less well known than they are today. Knightley, too, for that matter. They were competing with Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, and Colin Firth for screen time.

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    3. True--but this is about the stories being told, and the stories that get short shrift really deserved better.

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