Why It Works: Love Actually

Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.


Okay, before we get started, this may be a contentious one. For some of you, Richard CurtisLOVE ACTUALLY is a must watch every year and one of your favorite Christmas movies of all time; for others, it's just some corny romcom lumped into a category with those suspiciously similar Garry Marshall movies that started cropping up afterward. Whatever your opinion, it's absolutely a film worth dissecting for this column, as it weaves together what should be way too many storylines, features plots all the way from cartoonish to heartbreaking, leaves you with some lukewarm and questionable endings, and still manages to tie everything together with a nice little bow. Here's why it works:


LOVE ACTUALLY has a lot of characters, so we're not going to look at all of them, but for the most part we have characters who, on a surface level, are normal, charming, and witty but who are also missing or in search of something. Colin Firth's Jamie has been cheated on, Liam Neeson's Daniel has lost his wife but can confide in Emma Thompson's Karen, Alan Rickman's Harry is allowing some flirtation with his secretary, and Laura Linney's Sarah, Hugh Grant's David, Thomas Brodie-Sangster's Sam all have new or long-suppressed crushes on someone in their lives. We don't get a deep look at any one character, but with love, attraction, affection, desire, and loss being such universal feelings, it doesn't take much for us to recognize and identify with every one of them. Along the way, we get a relief from the traditional boy-meets-girl characters with Bill Nighy's aging rockstar Billy Mack, Colin Frissell (god of sex), and even a brief visit from Billy Bob Thorton's creepy-as-f*ck President of the United States (because almost every American in LOVE ACTUALLY is hilariously awful).

Laura Linney as Sarah: pretty much the only redeemable American character in the whole movie.


With great character count comes great plot complication, but LOVE ACTUALLY finds a way to keep the plotlines straight. One helpful tool is that the characters are all connected in some way, so we at least get the impression we're watching one story rather than nine short films spliced together. More importantly, LOVE ACTUALLY is a masterclass in boiling plots down to their key elements. Any one of these stories could be a movie by itself, with B plots, C plots, minor characters, some workplace drama, and a charming but racist grandmother, but instead we just get the core points. Boy likes girl, learns drums to impress girl, chases girl through airport, gets a kiss. Awkward naked boy likes slightly less awkward naked girl, awkwardly asks her out, gets an awkward kiss. Boy likes best friend's girl, secretly films her, comes to her house while best friend is also there, quietly holds up signs, gets a kiss (because if your name is Juliet, boys creep up on your house at weird hours, but it's all good). It also helps that many of these stories, while extremely familiar, feature plenty of elements we haven't quite seen before. The naked stand-ins, the nativity sea creatures, the book pages among the eels, the dancing prime minister- there's enough here to keep the movie from falling flat and feeling like it's just more of the same all shoved together. Finally, it's very helpful that we start to get some resolution as early as halfway into the film. Jamie and Aurelia's first kiss, Colin's trip to America, and Sarah and Karl's impasse all happen before we get into the third act, which both keeps the story moving and leaves room for some of the bigger stories to breathe later on.

"Worse than the total agony of being in love?" "Oh. No, you're right. Yeah, total agony."


Everyone in LOVE ACTUALLY gets an ending, though not all of them are what we'd expect. For Sam and Joanna, Jamie and Aurelia, David and Natalie, and Jack and Judy, we more or less get cute/happy/traditional romcom endings, but too many of these and you run the risk of leaving things in a place that feels too contrived, fluffy, and altogether underwhelming. Mark and Juliet end on an ambiguous, somewhat positive note, with Mark's "enough; enough now" letting us know he's found some satisfaction in how things are left. Sarah and Karl are unable to make a lasting connection, but in a final scene we see her enjoying Christmas with her brother, showing us that the real love story here is between the two of them, even if we're disappointed she missed her chance with the enigmatic chief designer. In Billy Mack and his manager, Joe, we get a love story we didn't even know was there, as Billy achieves his goal of having a number one song on the charts but leaves his celebration to be with his best friend. Colin wandering into an American bar only to find himself in a house with four gorgeous women is a completely ridiculous resolution to be sure, but it allows for a bit of a tongue-in-cheek, almost magical wink to the camera, where Curtis reminds us we're watching a fun comedy and not some grand drama. On the other side of the spectrum, however, we have Karen and Harry, whose story does bring quite a bit of weight to a relatively light film. According to Curtis' wife and script editor, Emma Freud, Harry and Mia do have an affair, he and Karen stay together afterward, "but home isn't as happy as it once was." This is without a doubt the worst outcome for the pair and the least conventially satisfying ending in the film, but it absolutely helps bring some realism and gravitas to the story- not to mention giving Emma Thompson a chance to act her ass off.

"General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that."


With his screenplays for FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, NOTTING HILL, and BRIDGET JONES' DIARY, Richard Curtis found a way to make romantic comedies funnier and more mature than usual while keeping the romance intact and limiting the schmaltz that's so severely scarred the genre over the years. With LOVE ACTUALLY, Curtis not only gives us more of his brilliant words and compelling stories but also steps into the director's chair for a damn impressive first time at the helm. Listening to the film's audio commentary and watching the deleted scenes, Curits didn't shy away from some pretty zany ideas (Sam parkours his way through the airpot, Rowan Atkinson is a Christmas angel, etc.), so certainly a great deal of gratitude has to be given to Curtis, Freud, and editor Nick Moore for leaving a lot on the page and the cutting room floor and making all the right moves to keep the film precise without rushing any of the important moments. Undoubtedly, the film's memorable moments and quotes are a huge take away, with quotes of "just in cases," "yes is being my answer," "first lobster," "of course you did, you saucy minx," "let's get pissed and watch porn," and "where the f*ck is my f*cking coat" popping up at in conversations and social media feeds every December over a decade later. Of course, there is no LOVE ACTUALLY without its insane cast, with Liam Neeson, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant, Martine McCutcheon, Colin Firth, Lúcia Moniz, Laura Linney, Rodrigo Santoro, Andrew Lincoln, Keira Knightly, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Bill Nighy, Gregor Fisher, Heike Makatsch, Kris Marshall, Abdul Salis, Olivia Olson, Martin Freeman, and Joanna Page leading the way, with Billy Bob Thornton, Rowan Atkinson, Claudia Schiffer, January Jones, Elisha Cuthbert, Ivana Miličević, Shannon Elizabeth, Denise Richards, Ant and Dec, Marcus Brigstocke, and more dropping by for the odd cameo. Finally, one of the most notable aspects of the film is the fact it covers many aspects of love, from the simplicity of a woman caring for her brother or a man appreciating his manager ("ugliest man alive") to the more complicated ideals of the forbidden love for a friend's wife or a fling with a secretary to the layered story of a boy who impresses the coolest girl in school but, more importantly, solidifies a loving kinship with his stepfather along the way (you may miss it the first time, but Sam calls Daniel "Daniel" for most of the film until they agree to go after Joanna: "okay, Dad, let's go get the shit kicked out of us by love"). Whether you haven't seen LOVE ACTUALLY since your first viewing or have seen it a dozen times, be sure to put it on at some point during this holiday season. I've got a sneaky feeling you'll find something to appreciate you never noticed before.

Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!

If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at [email protected].

Source: JoBlo.com



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