Like many other fragile men, I avoid rom-coms as you would a plague, deathly afraid that their saccharine love stories will cause me to access emotions I have worked hard to stifle.
Christmas movies pose less of a threat, but the genre achieved perfection with The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), and I cannot expect any subsequent film to match its glories. These conditions, and my success in avoiding a relationship in which I might be forced to sit through a piece of entertainment of these categories, will, I hope, suffice to explain why I have never seen the Christmas-related rom-com Love Actually (2003).
Each holiday season, however, the timeline fills up with Love Actually takes. Has it always been terrible, or is it secretly good? Does it exist in a paradoxical state of magnificent suckitude, problematic yet beautiful? Somehow, the Twitter fights never seem to resolve the question, and I am left to wonder: What the fuck even happens in this flick to merit such impassioned yearly argument? It’s a powerful mystery for me.
Still, my curiosity does not extend to watching it. That’s the easy way out. Instead, I’ve painstakingly assembled what little I know into a sophisticated analysis of Love Actually’s controversial plot lines, based on little other than random tweets. Here we go.
My first clue is the now-familiar poster image. Right off the bat, it feels safe to say this is a British movie. You’ve got Mr. Bean and Mr. Darcy in there; it’s gonna be pretty goddamn British. From there we can also deduce that Love Actually takes place in London, which is the only place in Britain. Perhaps most critically, we should note that this looks like far too many characters: 10 leads at minimum, and that’s not even counting the cop from The Walking Dead with the hand-drawn signs. (More on that later.) So this must be a kind of anthology or montage, with lots of barely related stories, the yuletide patient zero of that bizarre calendar-centric franchise where the movies were simply called, like, Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day or Armistice Day, and they crammed as many names as they could into the cast, plus Jason Sudeikis. Correct?
Now then: I’ve gleaned that Hugh Grant plays a prime minister, presumably fictional, because, for all his unctuous airs, he’s not quite smarmy enough to pull off Tony Blair. He’s in a tizzy because he wants to bone a subordinate — a brassy brunette — but it’s only been two months since his wife was struck and killed by a lorry. (Remember, this is in Britain.) Also, this woman belongs to the political opposition and does not support his plan to invade, I don’t know, Madagascar. Hugh gets advice from his best Eton mate, Colin Firth, a cad who looks great in peacoats. Colin tells him that having sex with your secretary is fine, but to sleep with someone of the lower classes is decidedly not.
Meanwhile, Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson are already fucking. They fuck their way through at least 80 percent of their screen time, not giving us much in the way of character background. Are they married? It’s possible. We suddenly cut to them in the throes of fucking, again and again, until one scene when you can see that Alan’s heart is no longer in it. He rolls off Emma, who bursts into tears and asks what’s wrong. “I snogged me secretary,” he replies, “and I ’aven’t the foggiest what to get her for Boxing Day!” Emma cries more. “Bloody ’ell,” says Alan, getting dressed to nip round the pub.
It so happens that Liam Neeson is also sad. He’s lost his job as a Buckingham Palace guard, probably because they found out he’s Irish. He wanders the high streets of London, window-shopping for the family he never had. Then comes an afternoon when he makes the acquaintance of a waifish child in a café, having caught the lad trying to nick his bag of scones. They walk the city together, enjoying a Socratic dialogue on the meaning of existence. At last the boy reveals that he’s dying of an obscure and Victorian-sounding disease, but he hasn’t had his first kiss. Liam sneaks him into Buckingham to visit the Queen, who gives him a tender kiss on the forehead.
Like Alan Rickman, “Hot Karl” — actor’s name unknown — is fucking for most of the movie. But he’s more nude. And instead of Emma Thompson, he fucks a wide variety of women, mostly secretaries, until one of them (January Jones?) tells him he’s not very good in bed. Devastated, he decides to end his life, but not before putting together a last will and testament with help from his brother, an inappropriately clownish estate lawyer played by Rowan Atkinson. In the course of his buffoonery, Rowan accidentally sets fire to his office, and as they make their escape, Hot Karl rescues Laura Linney, a psychiatrist who works down the hall. Sweaty, breathless and quite aroused from their brush with death, they decide to ditch their families and fly to the Bahamas for Christmas. In the cab on their way to Heathrow, Hot Karl asks if Laura has a secretary.
The cop from The Walking Dead has a crush on a hot bank teller. This would be Keira Knightley, doing an accent that strikes you as wrong even though it’s her natural speaking voice. The cop isn’t a cop in this, he’s a lorry driver or something — maybe the lorry driver who killed Prime Minister Hugh Grant’s wife. He’s also American, so he calls the lorry a “truck,” and the Brits are very amused by this. Anyway, he’s going to the bank every day to deposit 50 pence at a time, hoping for the chance to talk to Keira again. Realizing this approach has gotten him nowhere, he follows her home and finds out she’s married to Chiwetel Ejiofor, who happens to be his oldest friend! In fact, he was at their wedding with a camcorder. “That’s where I know her from!” he says. He doesn’t want to break up the marriage, but since he’s already made the signs declaring his love for Keira, he rings the doorbell and goes through with the creepy gesture. She pretends to be flattered long enough to call the authorities, who swiftly deport him.
God knows why, but there’s a huge musical number starring Bill Nighy. All I can tell you is that it definitely happens, and he sings about lots of British stuff, including Big Ben and fish and chips and how the country should leave the European Union. It’s a high point for the film, and it’s clear that Bill has fucked the most secretaries of any male character. I haven’t decided if Rowan Atkinson shows up to breakdance to the song. In any case, other familiar faces are there — Colin, Alan, Liam and the terminally ill young boy, each paired with an attractive secretary. Out of nowhere, Prime Minister Hugh Grant rushes the stage and seizes the microphone. “In the spirit of Christmas,” he announces, “we will not invade Madagascar after all! Or until the new year, whatever.”
From there, the epilogue is pretty obvious. Alan mutters, “I’m gasping, innit,” and goes out for a pack of cigarettes, never to return; Colin cheats on his secretary with his housemaid, on his yacht; Parliament passes a law against lorries; Liam gets together with Emma Thompson, who is still weeping, and they adopt the pallid urchin just moments before he passes away in his hospital bed.
The grieving couple receive counseling from Laura Linney, who relates a quote from Winston Churchill: The way a man looks at his secretary is love, actually. The credits roll to “Jingle Bell Rock.” There you go — the greatest British Christmas rom-com of all time. Blimey, I’m knackered.