We do not expect romantic comedies to be realistic, and so it would be inappropriate to criticize them by that standard. Rather, we expect such movies to be sentimental and idealistic about love, allowing the couples to go through all sorts of absurd situations until they finally marry and live happily ever after. However, our tolerance for this is limited, which is why romantic comedies should be no more than an hour and a half long. Love Actually is two hours and fifteen minutes long, and as a result, our ability to suspend disbelief is strained. In the end, the unrealistic nature of this movie begins to tell against it, and we become cynical about some of the situations.
The main reason for the length of this movie is that it consists of about nine different interweaving stories. One story is too silly to bother with, the one about Colin, who decides that his problem is that British women are too stuck up (the movie is set in England). He decides that he will do better in America, especially with his accent. When he gets there, he immediately ends up being invited to spend the night in the same bed naked with three beautiful women, and with a fourth roommate, said to be the sexy one, who is on her way.
It is the remaining stories that suffer from the natural tendency to apply realistic standards to any romantic comedy that overstays its welcome. The unrealistic aspects of these stories center around three themes: communication, sacrifice, and homosexuality.
It is a common situation in romantic movies to have two people that would be perfect for each other if one of them would just speak up and say, “I love you.” In one of the stories in this movie, Mark videotapes the marriage of Peter and Juliet (Keira Knightley). Mark is Peter’s best friend and best man at the wedding. Peter wants Mark and Juliet to be friends, but Mark does not appear to like her. Later in the movie, she discovers, when she sees the videotape of the wedding and reception, which is always focused on her, that Mark actually loves her.
Now, for some reason, the movie keeps promoting the idea that Christmas is the perfect time to be honest about one’s love. So, one evening shortly before Christmas, Mark shows up at Peter and Juliet’s place, and Juliet answers the door. Mark has a bunch of cards, approximately two by three feet, on which stuff is written. The first one says for Juliet to tell Peter it is Christmas carolers, and he plays a recording of caroling that is on his tape recorder. (It is almost painful to relate this part.) He reveals one card after another, confessing his true love for her. She kisses him affectionately. We get the sense that if Mark had just spoken up earlier, she might have married him instead. But, as they say, “Faint heart never won fair maiden.”
The result is a spiritual ménage à trois, in which we are to imagine that Mark and Juliet will now be able to love each other, though not consummating their feelings physically, which will make Peter happy, since he wanted them to be friends.
In a second story, Jaime (Colin Firth) discovers that his girlfriend has been having an affair with his brother when he comes home early one day. I wish I could say that it was unrealistic for her to have sex with Jaime’s brother right there in the apartment where she and Jaime live together. I mean, clearly, she should have gone to the brother’s place for sex. But people actually do such things, so I can only say that it’s stupid, not unrealistic. Anyway, he retreats to a place in France, I think, that he apparently goes to every year to write. He is alone there except for a housekeeper, Aurélia, an attractive young woman who speaks only Portuguese. It is clear that they are falling in love with each other, but owing to the fact that neither can speak the other’s language, they are unable to make their feelings known. When it is time for him to go back to England, she returns to Portugal.
Jaime makes a determined effort to learn Portuguese. When he speaks it just well enough to express himself, with humorous effect, he travels to Portugal, finds Aurélia, and tells her he wants to marry her. She accepts his proposal in English, revealing that she has been making an equal effort to learn his language.
In a third story, John and Judy perform naked, simulated sex scenes as body doubles for a movie. But John is shy, and it takes a long time for him to work up the nerve to ask her out on a date. When he finally does, she accepts, and it is clear that they will soon be lovers. Like the story about Colin, this one would be too silly to bother with were it not for the fact that it is another instance of the communication theme.
David (Hugh Grant), a bachelor, is the prime minister of England. He falls in love with Natalie, who is a member of his household staff, but he cannot bring himself to tell her how he feels. One day, he walks in on her and the visiting president of the United States (Billy Bob Thornton), just as the president is making a move on her (Bill Clinton had only been out of office for three years when this movie was released). David is disturbed by this and has her transferred to a job where he will not see her anymore. He gets a Christmas card from her, which essentially says that she loves him, after which he finds out where she resides so that they can live happily ever after.
Daniel (Liam Neeson) is mourning the death of his wife and is worried about raising their stepson, Sam. There seems at first to some trouble between them, but after making a concerted effort to communicate with Sam, Daniel discovers that the problem is that Sam, who is eleven years old, is in love with a girl at school named Joanna. Joanna is extremely popular, and Sam doesn’t even think she knows he exists. Daniel convinces Sam that he must tell Joanna how he feels about her, or he will regret it for the rest of his life. Sam catches up with her at the airport and tells her he loves her. He is taken away by security guards, but she catches up with him and kisses him.
Sarah (Laura Linney) is in love with Karl, so much so that everyone in the office is aware of it except Karl. Her boss urges her to tell Karl how she feels about him. She finally does so, and they almost consummate their passion for each other, but then the phone rings. As this leads to the next theme, sacrifice, I will take up the rest of this story up in the next section.
Placed one after another in this fashion, we see what an unrelenting drumbeat this movie is in its advocacy for communication as the panacea for all problems romantic. Now, on the one hand, it is certainly true that in order for a romance to get going, someone has to make the first move, usually after some hesitancy. But I shudder at the thought that some people will take the moral of these stories seriously and believe that all they have to do is confess their love and it will be fully requited.
Looked at realistically, even if Mark were lucky enough to have Juliet answer the door instead of Peter, she would probably not have appreciated his unwanted advances and would have thought his routine with the cards to be creepy.
As for Jaime and Aurélia, I remember someone telling me that a lot of soldiers married Vietnamese women when they were overseas during the war, and that things worked out just fine until the women learned to speak English. Then they started having problems. Because Jaime and Aurélia cannot communicate with each other, their feeling for each other has to be mostly physical, unless you are willing to buy into the romantic nonsense that they were made for each other and they sensed it somehow. Once they can talk to each other, they may find out just how incompatible they are (e.g., it may turn out that he wants to have children and she does not).
Regarding David and Natalie, my only thought there is that if their relationship turns sour, he may find himself on the wrong side of a sexual harassment suit.
But the one that bothers me the most is the one in which Daniel talks Sam into telling Joanna how he feels. It is one thing for a mature adult to suppose that all he needs to do is tell a woman he loves her and all will be well, but I really cringe when a parent talks a child into doing something like that. A very likely scenario would be for Joanna to react negatively to Sam’s telling her that he loves her, because she thinks him to be a nerd. And as children have less tact than adults, she might have expressed her contempt for him without reservation.
When Harry (Alan Rickman) finds out that Mia, his new secretary, wants to have sex with him, he decides to buy her an expensive necklace for Christmas. He tries to buy it on the sly while shopping with his wife Karen (Emma Thompson) in a department store, but the sale is interrupted when she finishes her shopping and finds him at the jewelry counter, where he pretends he was just looking around. She laughs it off, saying that her expectations are not so high as to think he would buy her jewelry after all their years of marriage. On another day, he returns by himself, buys the necklace, and puts it in his coat pocket. When he gets home, Karen feels something in his coat as she hangs it up. She finds the box, opens it, and concludes that it is a present for her. When Christmas arrives and they open their presents, her present turns out to just be a CD. She is heartbroken and later confronts him over it. He admits he was a fool, and she says he has made a fool of her. Nevertheless, she decides to stay with him.
Realistically, a man would have to be a fool to try to buy a necklace for his mistress while shopping with his wife. Even buying the necklace when he was by himself would be risky. A jeweler I used to know said that one night he was waiting on a customer who was buying a diamond necklace, when suddenly a woman walked up to him and said, “Hi George. Are you getting that for Emily?” He said that he was, and the woman assured him that Emily would love it. When she left, the customer turned to the jeweler and said, “I guess I’ll need to buy two of them now.” In fact, that particular jewelry store used to have Wednesday nights be for men only, so that neither wives nor the friends of the wives would know about such surreptitious purchases. In any event, said purchases would be kept at the office, not brought home for the wives to discover them.
The important thing, however, is the theme of the woman sacrificing her happiness for the sake of others, presumably for the children in this case, a feature not uncommon in Hollywood melodramas. In real life, Karen might have stayed with Harry after finding out that he was cheating on her, but the marriage would not likely have been a happy one after that. In fact, she herself says as much later on, that life will always be a little worse from that point on if she stays with him. Now, a man might make a great sacrifice in a movie, but it is typically on a grander scale, such as that of Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities. But it is women that sacrifice themselves in the movies for domestic reasons, something that men never seem to do. After all, Jaime did not forgive his girlfriend when he found out that she was cheating on him. Even if they had been married and had children, had he forgiven her and stayed with her, he would have been despised as a cuckold. But when a woman forgives her husband in a movie, making a sacrifice for the sake of the family, it is sentimentalized to the point that her staying with him is portrayed as something noble and fine.
The incipient relationship between Sarah and Karl, referred to in the previous section, is interrupted again and again by her mentally disturbed brother Michael, who keeps calling her on the phone. Michael is institutionalized, because he is prone to be violent. Later on in the movie, with all hope of finding happiness with Karl gone, we see Sarah visiting her brother in the insane asylum, giving him a big hug. The idea, you see, is that her love for her brother is what is truly important. But once again, we have a story about a woman who nobly sacrifices her happiness for someone else. In other words, the movie knew better than to have it be a man who was sacrificing his love life to take care of an institutionalized relative. And it is all so pointless and unrealistic anyway. In real life, Sarah would have visited her brother from time to time, but she would have lived her own life as well, having a love affair with Karl, with the phone turned off.
There are no homosexuals in this movie, but the subject keeps coming up in ways that seem strange. For one thing, there is a painting of four naked men, seen from behind, that the movie keeps insisting on showing us for some reason. But mostly, there are conversations that bring us to the edge of homosexuality, only to bring us back from it.
Billy Mack, a has-been rock star who has made an unexpectedly successful comeback, decides he would rather spend Christmas with his manager, Joe, the love of his life, as he puts it. Now, I am glad that society is much more tolerant of homosexuality than it used to be, even to the point of allowing same-sex marriage. But at the expense of being accused of homophobia, I can tell you right now that there is no way I would tell another man that he was the love of my life. It is just a fact of life that a lot of men would feel uncomfortable, if not threatened, by such a remark. In any event, Billy Mack then suggests they watch porn together (heterosexual porn, of course), thereby removing the possibility of a homosexual relationship between the two just seconds after it was ambiguously suggested. You can almost hear the audience breathing a sigh of relief, having feared that they were about to witness a big, sloppy kiss.
At the wedding of Peter and Juliet, Sarah can tell that Mark seems a little down, so she asks him, “Are you in love with him?” Well, I suppose she was only giving voice to what the audience was already suspecting, because the movie did seem to suggest that as a possibility, especially since at the stag party for Peter, Mark arranged for there to be prostitutes available, but the prostitutes turned out to be men, leaving us to wonder what the heck is going on. Once again, it is not the possibility of homosexuality itself that strikes us, but what was said in that regard. There is no way I would ask a man if he was in love with another man. Maybe, if he was openly gay, and if we were pretty good friends, I might ask a question like that. But Mark is not openly gay for the simple reason he is not gay. So, for Sarah to come right out with a question like that was inappropriate for the simple reason that it was none of her damn business. Of course, her asking him that question is supposed to be justified because she thought he might need someone to talk to about it. In other words, this dovetails with the communication theme discussed above. But being willing to listen to a friend who needs to talk is one thing, and prying into his personal life is something else again.
Daniel suggests that Sam, who is a preadolescent eleven-year-old boy, is a bit young to be in love, but Daniel humors him when Sam insists that he is not. Fine. But then, when he starts to ask Sam if the feeling is reciprocated, he begins by saying, “And what does she…,” hesitates, adds the word “he” as a possibility, and then completes the question, “…feel about you?” Here we go again. If I had a son who turned out to be gay, I would figure that would be his business. In fact, if he were straight, I would figure that was his business too, and I would not pry into his personal life. But in any event, I would probably assume that it was a girl he was in love with without thinking about it. And if I did think about it, I wouldn’t let on. At most, I might ask, in a gender neutral way, “Who is it you are in love with?” It would be bad enough to suggest to an adult male, as Sarah did, that he might be in love with another man, but to suggest to an eleven-year-old boy that he might be in love with another boy is really over the top.
The thrust of all this seems to be that being gay is now so accepted by society that if you are a man, you can tell another man that he is the love of your life without fear of making him feel uncomfortable; that it is permissible to ask a man who is not openly gay if he is in love with another man; and that it is all right to suggest to a little boy that he might be in love with another little boy. Such manners of speaking are neither realistic nor advisable.
We have reached the point that we now need a new term, homophobia-phobia, the fear of being accused of homophobia. The movie dares the people in the audience to express any misgivings about the three scenes discussed above, and so great is their homophobia-phobia that few have the courage to do so.
Owing to the fact that Richard Curtis, the man who wrote the screenplay and directed this movie, wanted it to be about the intersecting lives of many different people and their stories, its excessive length was inevitable. Equally inevitable, then, is the fact that we become increasingly critical of the movie’s naïve idealism as it wears on.