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Why Love Actually is worth loving despite its flaws

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Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

For the past few years, as November turns to December, the time for a cherished holiday tradition arrives. I refer, of course, to fighting about Love Actually on the internet.

Since the movie came out in 2003, its fans have increasingly considered it a holiday classic, and its detractors have grown louder and more vocal. Love Actually is the least romantic film of all time. No, actually, its depiction of love is good. And so on. And so forth.

This yearly cycle of thesis and antithesis has finally, for me, yielded a synthesis. Love Actually is, in many places, a terrible movie. But it succeeds at evoking the same emotion it set out to depict: love as an exuberant, unstoppable, basically irrational force.

Like a Love Actually character, I'm aware of all the reasons that loving this movie is a bad idea. And like a Love Actually character, I love it with a stupid, irrational passion anyway.

Love Actually is a movie about terrible people

Let's be clear: hating Love Actually is pretty easy. My household owns not one but two copies of the movie, a hedge against some kind of romantic comedy apocalypse, and as we settled in a few weeks ago with mugs of mulled wine and the scent of a fresh Christmas tree, I spent the first hour picking the movie apart.

  • The movie's least compelling, most immature characters get to fall in love; the most sympathetic get to suffer, because their spouses die or are unfaithful or their family obligations are all-consuming.
  • Nearly all the women fit neatly into a Madonna/whore matrix: caretaker or sex kitten. Mia, who tries to have an affair with her married boss, is so two-dimensionally hateable that she dresses as literally the devil, for a Christmas party at which no one else is wearing costumes.
  • Every year, the overwhelming straightness of Love Actually's couples makes me roll my eyes a little more.
  • A movie should not both make a tasteless reference to the 9/11 attacks in the opening voiceover and end with a scene requiring a willful suspension of disbelief about the realities of post-9/11 airport security. You get one or the other.
  • "At Christmas, you tell the truth," is not a universally acknowledged holiday tradition; it is a pathetic self-justification for confessing your love to your best friend's new wife. (The less said about that plotline, the better.)

As I watched it this year, my mulled wine started to turn sour in my mouth. Maybe the haters were right all along, I thought; maybe Love Actually is a bad movie, and I fell for it because I was an impressionable 18-year-old when I first saw it and part of me always will be.

The last 20 minutes of Love Actually are sheer joy

And then came the end. The Prime Minister started knocking on doors to find the girl he'd fallen in love with. Jamie got on a plane to Marseilles to show off his newfound knowledge of Portuguese and propose to his housekeeper. Natalie's mother said "Eight is a lot of legs, David!"

I found myself grinning. I forgot that I spent the past hour grumbling about the shallowness of the plot and complaining about how the movie gave me unrealistic expectations for my first trip through Heathrow Airport. I forgot that I had seen the movie five or six times before. I was laughing with joy like I hadn't seen it before, on the high of a shot of pure romantic comedy dopamine.

You know the climax of When Harry Met Sally? When Harry runs into the fancy New Year's party and confronts Sally and says "When you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible"? Love Actually is the movie for people who saw the end of When Harry Met Sally and thought, "OK, but you know what would be better is if this lasted for 20 minutes, not two."

So we get Natalie and David at the Christmas concert, and Sam at Heathrow Airport, and Jamie in Marseilles' inexplicable Portuguese neighborhood (a thing that, as far as I know, does not exist in real life).

It's a glorious, stupid, irrational high. Much like the movie's version of love, the final 20 minutes are a grand gesture that make up for all the wrongs that came before.

I know my affection for Love Actually can't hold up to scrutiny. But that's fine. Love Actually isn't a movie about the transformative power of real love, or the ingredients for a successful lifelong partnership, or the meaning of heartbreak. It's a movie about falling for something or someone irrationally, in spite of yourself, in spite of their myriad flaws — a feeling that anybody who loves Love Actually is acutely familiar with.

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