It’s one of the best Christmas movies ever, along with Christmas Vacation.
It’s also one of the most hated and the most scrutinized.
Love Actually does a lot of things right. It has many indelible moments. Colin Firth mangling the Portuguese language as most of the neighborhood watches him propose. Laura Linney’s happy dance. God Only Knows playing as dozens of families happily greet each other at Heathrow.
The cue-card scene alone is the subject of multiple Saturday Night Live parodies, the best of which was oddly cut for time but has more than 14m YouTube views.
On the other hand, it’s unrealistic, it’s over the top, and it doesn’t portray women all that well. The older or professional women (Emma Thompson and Laura Linney) are hard done by. The youngest women land the smart, handsome, older men.
As much as I love this film and watch it most Decembers, I can’t argue against the Honest Trailer:
You can say parts of it haven’t aged well. But honestly, even 20 years ago, we knew it wasn’t OK to have relationships with such skewed power dynamics.
So as a thought experiment, let’s see how we’d remake each storyline, ranked here from worst to best. I’m not the first person to do this, but I might be the first man. Because, apparently, films in which the women who fare the best are scantily clad subordinates really go over well with women.
9. The office temptress and Alan Rickman
Maybe it’s actually worse when the employee goes after the boss, especially when he’s married to Emma Freaking Thompson and has adorable kids. This is one you’ll probably skip when viewing the film for the fifth or 10th time.
What doesn’t work: The seductress is so disgustingly awful that you wonder what Alan Rickman even sees in her.
What works: Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson. You can see the conflict on Rickman’s face. We don’t even see confirmation that he and the serpent ever consummated their … what would you call this? Not a relationship. Not anything, really. And Emma Thompson forcing a smile around everyone else and breaking down by herself is an acting master class.
How to fix it: Make what’s-her-face at least a little bit two-dimensional.
8. Going to America
Yes, an English accent is an aphrodisiac, so much so that even a loser who isn’t particularly attractive can go to the USA and immediately end up in a supermodel sandwich.
What doesn’t work: The guy doesn’t exactly ooze charisma.
What works: A lot of people would say this one is over the top. I’d argue that it wouldn’t work if it wasn’t. The sheer absurdity is its saving grace.
How to fix it: Give the guy some personality.
7. Laura Linney’s dream date ruined
Tip for first-time viewers: When Laura Linney and Hot Co-worker Dude are in bed, you can start fast-forwarding when the phone rings.
What doesn’t work: Hot Co-worker Dude proves to be a short-sighted idiot who runs away upon discovering that the woman with whom he was about to make sweet love has a mentally ill relative.
What works: Laura Linney’s range of emotions. Her conversation with Alan Rickman is dry English wit at its best. She has her happy dance. Then she breaks down. We’ve been rooting for her, which makes it all the more poignant that things don’t work out for her.
How to fix it: While she’s crying at the end, Karl comes back into the office: “Look, I don’t care if your brother is at the only mental hospital that gives its patients 24/7 access to phones rather than treating them, which is a poor statement on the NHS. You’re beautiful, you’re smart, you’re charming, and I’ll understand if you have to take a bloody phone call.” They proceed to carry on like crazed college kids.
6. Prime Minister Hugh Grant and Natalie
So did his approval rating go up or down when their relationship went public the minute it truly began?
In the brief sequel made for Red Nose Day in 2017, the prime minister has just returned to office, thanks to the fickle British electorate, and he resumes dancing around 10 Downing Street. Natalie is now more of an equal, which is nice.
What doesn’t work: The power imbalance. She’s an employee and clearly much younger.
What works: “Eight is a lot of legs, David” is one of the best lines of the film, and it’s the high point of Grant’s wonderful search on Natalie’s street that includes the discovery that his driver has an amazing voice on Good King Wenceslas, to the delight of the kids down the street.
How to fix it: Instead of the prime minister, the man in question is a young wunderkind like George Stephanopoulos in the Clinton administration. The power imbalance problem is thereby erased. The prime minister helps him find Natalie, so we still have our delightful street scenes.
5. Unrequited love via cue cards
Having a crush on a friend’s significant other is a well-worn trope that’s usually tedious. The exceptions are this storyline and Jessie’s Girl.
What doesn’t work: It’s uncomfortable knowing that two of the three characters here will have to keep this secret for the rest of their lives.
What works: The cue-card scene is rightfully legendary, but the church scene with the flash mob playing All You Need Is Love and the scene of Andrew Lincoln venting his pent-up emotion while a Dido song plays are also must-sees.
How to fix it: Nothing to “fix,” necessarily. This is surely the best the filmmakers could do with this angle.
4. Jamie and Aurelia
Now the choices are getting difficult. Critics complain that the film has two storylines with an older man and younger subordinate, but we don’t really know the age gap here.
What doesn’t work: Things are cheapened a bit when she strips down to her underwear. The film requires us to suspend our disbelief in many ways, but Jamie and Aurelia learning each other’s languages this quickly seems more unrealistic than the others.
What works: The scenes in which Jamie and Aurelia try to communicate despite the language barrier.
How to fix it: Maybe a little more time elapsing?
3. The porn stand-ins
Or is it a porn film? Maybe just an R-rated film with some graphic sex scenes? Anyway, this is the simplest storyline of the bunch, but the irony of people meeting under such circumstances is played brilliantly.
What doesn’t work: The forced “all I want for Christmas is you” line.
What works: Every bit of dialogue aside from that.
How to fix it: Maybe more interplay with other storylines?
2. Play drums, impress girl
“Your story thread in Love Actually is the second worst!”
“You better take that back!”
“No way your son would learn the drums in that amount of time!”
Speaking as a drummer, I’d take issue with Peter Griffin here. Learning a basic beat is a hell of a lot easier than learning Portuguese.
What doesn’t work: Why would Titanic be a good film choice to show a young boy with what he’s sure is an unrequited crush? Also, having the girl and the mom both named Joanna is kinda creepy. You have to suspend your disbelief about Heathrow security letting Sam get that far through the airport, but the distractions that creep in from other storylines (Rowan Atkinson’s time-sucking vortex, Bill Nighy performing nude as promised) account for his window of opportunity.
What works: Everything else. Liam Neeson, in accordance with his wife’s wishes, playing the Bay City Rollers at her funeral. Liam’s aching look at said funeral. His concern for Sam and his efforts to break through. Emma Thompson telling him to shape up or no one will want to shag him. Sam’s mad dash through Heathrow. Sam’s drumming, which is competent but just clumsy enough to remind us that he’s a beginner.
And one bit of trivia: Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who plays Sam here, is the voice of Ferb on Phineas and Ferb. In that show, Ferb has a crush of Vanessa, who’s voiced by Olivia Olson … who plays Joanna in Love Actually! One of many clever twists in one of the best children’s shows ever.
How to fix it: Don’t name Olivia Olson’s character Joanna.
1. The aging rock star comeback
You can tell Bill Nighy had the time of his life playing this wildly entertaining character, a rock star who realizes that the best way to promote his horrible Christmas comeback song is to lean into how bad it is. He’s a self-parodying celebrity who’s in on the joke, and every bit of the joke lands perfectly.
What doesn’t work: Are you kidding? OK, maybe he should’ve taken his manager to Elton John’s party instead of going to his place to get drunk and watch porn.
What works: Every time I watch English soccer and hear the name “Watford,” I think of Radio Watford. “Well, Ant or Dec” is even funnier when you know the two real-life TV personalities involved. Nighy’s timing on his “kids, don’t buy drugs” line is masterful. In a film full of storylines that tug at the heart strings, it’s nice to have one that’s just flat-out fun.
How to fix it: More screen time. A spinoff film.
We’ve finally stopped watching this film every Christmas Eve, and we had gotten to where we skipped a few scenes each year, anyway. But if you’ve never checked this out after leaving the cookies out for Santa, please do. By the time you see all the families at Heathrow while God Only Knows plays, you’ll feel a bit better about the world. (Unless you’re a hard-hearted cynic, in which case you should do us all a favor and just sleep through the holidays.)
Which is why I’ve decided, even though I don’t need to see the whole film this year, to watch and share the heartwarming conclusion:
To all a good night …