Love Actually is a sleazy, amoral mess masquerading as holiday romance. But it begins on a promising note. Images of joyful people hugging and kissing at London Heathrow Airport underscore Hugh Grant’s hopeful voice-over, which celebrates the feelings of love, understanding and peace that he insists still dominate our globe.
Then things fall apart rapidly as audiences are introduced to nearly a dozen circumstances in which “ordinary” folks count down the last few weeks till Christmas. Among them is the unlucky-in-love author (Jamie) whose live-in girlfriend is living it up with his brother. There’s the over-the-hill rock ‘n’ roller (Billy Mack) who wasted his youth on drugs and never found his special someone. There’s the grieving father (Daniel) and stepson (Sam) who have to learn to live again after Mom’s untimely death. There’s the frustrated twentysomething “sex god” (Colin) who hops a plane to America so he can “score” with some “Minnesota babes.” There’s the porn-star stand-ins (John and Judy) who meet while standing in naked on the set of an X-rated movie. There’s the “happily married couple” (Harry and Karen) who have to ford a few outside indiscretions. And yes, there’s the very available Prime Minister who falls head-over-heals for a girl on his staff.
If there’s an overarching message this movie tries to send (other than “morality is for wimps”), it’s that love mustn’t be silenced. After Sam tells his dad that he’s “in love” with a girl at school, his dad urges him to speak up and let her know how he feels. The Prime Minister hides his feelings for the girl in his office, but then realizes that it doesn’t matter if he’s a pauper or a king, he has to follow his heart. Jamie and his Portuguese housekeeper both fall so hard for each other that they learn Portuguese and English respectively so that they can profess their love. (Unfortunately, this onscreen compulsion to spill one’s guts carries over into inappropriate relationships as well. Harry’s assistant at work lets him know how much she cares for him, despite knowing full well that he is a married man. Another man silently watches his best friend marry his secret crush, then can’t bear it any longer and confronts her with his love after she’s tied the knot.)
School kids put together a nativity scene in which Barney is baby Jesus. Another school play that revolves around Jesus’ birth features Spider-man, an octopus and lobsters. The song the children sing isn’t a Christmas carol, but rather, “Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket.” Colin yells “praise the lord” when three American girls tell him they’d be happy to get naked with him. They respond by cooing, “And he’s a Christian, too!”
Lust, nudity and sex are as commonplace as baseball and apple pie. … Or is it cricket and figgy pudding? Love Actually is sentimental sludge with a saccharine coating of carnality, as if the filmmakers—afraid their mawkish melodrama might show too much—spliced nudity and sex throughout so as to trick critics into calling it edgy and artsy. John and Judy fall in lust while working on the set of a porn movie. Their job? To pose naked in sexual positions while the production crew sets up lights and cameras. Worse, they don’t just pose, they move, simulating the sexual acts that the “stars” will then perform for real. Love Actually shows them fully nude several times and for lengthy periods while they pretend to have oral sex and intercourse (lower sexual organs are the only things hidden from view).
Coworkers who had been secretly eyeing one another for more than two years finally connect at a company Christmas party (held at an art gallery stocked with an array of super-sized nude paintings and photographs). That night they go back to her place and strip each other down to their jockeys and panties before they’re interrupted by a phone call.
One casual line delivered by Daniel reinforces a growing social acceptance of homosexuality in a way rarely seen in movies. When the middle school-age Sam tells his dad that he’s in love, Daniel wants to know if his son’s feelings are being reciprocated so he asks, “What does he, she, think about you?” His son replies, “She,” but the implications of Daniel’s “innocent” query send shivers up and down my spine. Crass comments, jokes and song lyrics refer to pornography, cross dressers, and homosexual and heterosexual sex. Billy Mack jokes about having sex with Britney Spears. Talking to his son, Daniel jokes about having sex with Claudia Schiffer “in every room of the house, including yours.” Women are seen dressing and undressing. Billy Mack performs naked on TV (his guitar covers his crotch).
An man in a mental hospital attempts to hit his sister. There is a fender bender.
A dozen f-words, eight s-words and a hefty assortment of vulgar and obscene slang for sexual parts and acts are joined by about 20 abuses of God’s and Jesus’ names. (Sam includes the f-word in his banter with his young son.)
Billy Mack talks about the years he was addicted to heroin. On a TV show, he jokes that kids shouldn’t buy drugs; rather they should become rock stars so people will give them drugs for free. Characters frequently drink alcohol at a wedding and at parties.
Because the U.S. President (who is married) hits on the Prime Minister’s favorite staffer, the PM lashes out at the U.S. in a press conference, telling the world that the two countries are no longer friends. At the airport, Sam jumps over security barricades and runs after his dream girl so that he can tell her he loves her.
Love Actually‘s filmmakers (responsible for Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary) take The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” a bit too literally. Love is all that matters here. Morals don’t matter. Respect doesn’t matter. Propriety doesn’t matter. Marital status doesn’t matter. Gender doesn’t matter. It’s a disgrace to even call it love under such conditions. Lust and codependency would do much better.
Because of Love Actually‘s devotion to fragmented vignettes, it fails to develop any one story to any degree of satisfaction. (“A patchwork of contrived naughtiness and forced pathos,” writes The New York Times‘ A.O. Scott.) If moviegoers identify with or latch onto a particular subplot, they’ll quickly wish they hadn’t as 20 minutes of nudity-studded sludge goes by before they see it come around again for a three-minute slice. If you’re savvy, you won’t waste emotions on any of them.