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The case against Love Actually

Nothing about the beloved Christmas rom-com comes off as romantic — at least, not in a way that doesn’t feel cheap. 

Poster of the movie Love Actually showing four snapshots of the characters and a ribbon separating them as though on a wrapped package. Universal Pictures
Melinda Fakuade is an associate editor for Vox, working mainly with The Goods and the Culture team. She is from New York and her writing has focused on culture, entertainment, and consumerism.

I will not stay silent on this, my hottest take, any longer: Love Actually, the “classic” holiday rom-com that is very dear to at least one person in your life, is actually a very bad movie.

Now, I know a lot of you are likely clutching your pearls in disbelief. Maybe you yourself have been fond of this film since its November 2003 release, more than 17 years ago. Even after all these years, Love Actually still prevails for some as the quintessential Christmas film. It has been lauded for its heartwarming clichés and general cutesy-ness, neatly wrapped up in a rom-com package.

Here’s the gist: The movie introduces us to several different couples, living out their ideas of “love” a few weeks before Christmas. They take big chances in the name of love, suffer heartbreaks, isolate themselves, surround themselves with friends and family, and pursue love, all in the name of the holidays. Each relationship is angled as a way to make a statement about the nature of love. The characters are imperfect, and maybe that’s what the movie attempts to say about love, but it also fails to articulate this clearly. Some of the relationships feel flimsy; others are so underdeveloped that they don’t give me a chance to feel anything at all. Nothing about the movie comes off as romantic at all — at least, not in a way that doesn’t feel cheap.

I know this is the kind of opinion that makes people salivate at the opportunity to send hate mail. But in the spirit of Christmastime, I ask that you be kind and allow me to make my case that Love Actually is bad actually.

This is where the scene is set: Christmastime, in England, with a star-studded cast that does very little to impress. There are nine — nine! — main storylines, and each one attempts to depict a tale of love. But English accents, the holiday season, and celebrities barely masquerading as normal people feel like a failed insurance policy of a movie. The combination of all these pieces is an insult to the viewer’s imagination. Surely, writer-director Richard Curtis seems to be thinking as the movie drags itself deeper and deeper into a tedious hole, this will be a success. I’ve slapped all of British Hollywood into a supposed “rom-com” that grasps for straws when it comes to romance and comedy, but hey, they’ll love it — it is Christmastime, after all.

Love Actually’s obsession with Christmas is one of its main problems. It has nothing to do with Christmas, beyond its backdrop, yet it also attempts to promote the juvenile-but-lasting idea that Christmas is inherently romantic. I don’t know why this sentiment is so popular. Does a budding relationship need snowy scenery, gingerbread cookies, and lurking relatives to spark intimacy? Do couples automatically yearn for each other just because Santa is on the way? In a movie where the characters and their relationships are so flimsy, perhaps the forthcoming of Kris Kringle is a potent-enough aphrodisiac on its own.

The celebrity cast only emphasizes the two-dimensionality of these characters. Liam Neeson plays a grieving father overinvested in his son’s love life. Cute, I guess, but Neeson’s character spends the film acting like his son’s crush is a life or death situation. (The Taken franchise, although clearly inspired by Neeson’s overprotective father role here, doesn’t kick off for five more years.) Keira Knightley stars as a newlywed who serves the plot only as a cardboard character for Andrew Lincoln’s character to project a creepy crush onto. A last-minute Denise Richards cameo? Sure, why not! Rowan Atkinson as an enthusiastic jewelry counter employee isn’t enjoyable, it’s disconcerting — what on earth is Mr. Bean doing here?

The endless onslaught of instantly recognizable actors is as head-spinning as the plot points, which wind and weave together without an ounce of dexterity. The moment a particular plot seems all but forgotten, the film yanks us back to it, and the viewer has to fight to recall the context. I confused characters constantly, too — there are just so many boring white people, all tangled up in each other’s lives, sometimes even without knowing. This could be cute and fun if it had managed to be coherent. Watching Love Actually is like running a marathon, and it’s impossible to keep up without proper training, which is why I assume the stans can recite its intricacies so easily. For the rest of us, the mental gymnastics leave us winded.

Messy plots, messier characters

Love Actually fails to make viewers have a personal stake in the success of any of its overwrought romantic pairings, of which there are almost too many to count. The movie is far more concerned with shoving as many stories together as possible instead of developing people or their plot lines.

Let’s briefly run through the major characters, for those who have not seen the film. Spoiler: Almost all of them are terrible.

There’s Daniel (Liam Neeson) and his son Sam (Thomas Sangster), who is “in love” with a classmate, and that’s why he’s been moping around. This is totally unrelated to his mother’s recent death, although somehow, the girl of his dreams shares his mother’s first name, Joanna. Uh, weird, but okay! Daniel helps his son go so far as to stalk his classmate to the airport and tells the attendant that the child needs to enter without a boarding pass to “say goodbye to the love of his life.” We’re just going to pretend that’s normal or healthy, even for the realm of make-believe that is romantic movies? And yet, Love Actually wants us to root for father and son, to embrace and encourage this nearly criminal behavior, regardless of how poor Joanna might feel about it.

Juliet (Keira Knightley) is at the center of a love triangle between herself, her husband Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and his best man, Mark (Andrew Lincoln). That is, if you can even call it a love triangle because Peter is completely unaware that his best friend is “in love” with his new bride, despite him never saying more than a few words to her in his life. A proper love triangle usually involves some form of awareness from all parties involved, but oh well! In what is arguably the movie’s most iconic scene, Mark shows up at Juliet’s house out of the blue to hold up some weird signs that proclaim his love. Though he waits until after Juliet and Peter’s wedding to make his feelings known, we viewers are supposed to find the confession, and subsequent kiss, worthy of our adoration.

Let me remind you that this is Mark’s best friend’s wife that he’s trying to get with, a woman he knows nothing about. There is no build-up — we are just meant to agree that, yes, Mark has a very normal obsession with Juliet, and that obsession is a remarkable “love.” Peter never finds out about the beginnings of this emotional affair, leaving the future of his marriage in doubt.

The other couples vary in how loathsome they are. The good: Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurélia (Lúcia Moniz) fall for each other in the typical-but-believable way of romantic comedies. Neither of them speaks the other’s language, yet the attraction is there, born from the intangibles of love. The same goes for the pair of pornographic stunt doubles, John and Judy, played by Martin Freeman and Joanna Page, respectively. But those couples deserve large storylines, real arcs that can’t be found within the confines of this film.

Then, the bad: coworkers Karl and Sarah (Rodrigo Santoro and Laura Linney), who basically just hook up and nothing more. Nothing comes of it due to Sarah’s responsibilities with her mentally ill brother, but this is a ridiculously surface-level plot that just leaves us with more questions, so much so that the couple may as well have been edited out of the movie. Maybe the budding romance between the prime minister, charmingly played by Hugh Grant, and his staffer, Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), could function better elsewhere, too, but it certainly doesn’t work here. What gives the prime minister the eventual courage to pursue Natalie is watching her be sexually harassed by the president of the United States, played by Billy Bob Thornton. For some reason, the occurrence provokes a strange jealousy in the prime minister, but the film angles this as heartbreak. Natalie and the prime minister are clearly attracted to each other, but it goes no further until the end of their arc, motivated by a desire to stick it to the POTUS and, of course, by the spirit of Christmas.

Their romance is also wildly inappropriate, as is the relationship between Harry (Alan Rickman) and Mia (Heike Makatsch), a boss and his assistant. To make matters worse, Harry is married. He and Mia make eyes at each other from the start of their interactions, but the movie never actually makes it clear if they’re sleeping together or not. Inexplicably, Mia wears bedazzled devil ears to the holiday party. We get it, Love Actually: She’s a temptress, and he’s an idiot who wants to “dance with the devil” in front of his wife at a work function. His wife Karen (Emma Thompson) discovers the emotional infidelity and breaks down in private but returns stoically to her family, one of the film’s only legitimately moving scenes. But the fate of their broken marriage is never really resolved. The movie is full of dangling storylines like this; instead of following through on the plot, Love Actually lives and dies by its characters, and hangs viewers out to dry.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter why these characters fall for each other — love is blind, random, whatever, yes, I wholeheartedly agree — but that sentiment alone doesn’t give a movie of this nature lasting allure. The chemistry between the two stunt doubles, for example, has palpable reasoning. These people see each other naked at work every day, where they imitate sex acts! They are both shy people, sharing an intimate part of themselves with each other. They spend real time together — something that can’t be said for many of the pairings in the film.

Familiarity makes a fool of us

I am not trying to suggest in that snide, media-academic way that “We need to talk about Love Actually” or that the film’s central problem is that it is problematic. Its central problem is that it is not good. The film is a structural mess, at turns cringe-y and painful, and it lacks adequate closure or any meaningful lessons or clues about its characters. Is the prime minister not fearful of the optics of dating a staffer? Do Harry and his wife have past issues that led to the cheating? We’ll never know, even though Love Actually is about the length of a Lord of the Rings film. I guess there, somehow, just wasn’t enough time.

I am not the first to condemn Love Actually. People have been pointing out its flaws for years. Love Actually received overall mixed reviews from critics upon its release. There’s one review of Love Actually in the Atlantic from 10 years after the movie’s release, in 2013, which absolutely drags the film with the fury it deserves. “Love Actually is a considerable outlier among romantic comedies in its rigorous conviction not only that people fall in love without really knowing one another,” writes Christopher Orr, “but that they don’t even need to learn anything about each other to confirm their initial attraction.”

But I’m not the type to get stuffy about critical reception, and I believe that some critics do like sitting on high horses to turn up their noses at things that people generally like. But when it comes to Love Actually, I am sorry to say that many of us have been duped.

Andrew Selepak, a media professor at the University of Florida, told Vox that the film might not resonate with some people because of how poorly its characters act. The male cast is mostly deplorable; they don’t need to have redeemable qualities for the film to be enjoyable, but it’s hard to even want them to succeed when they’re so annoying. “The love of [Liam Neeson’s] life has died, and pretty quickly he’s looking into dating other women, and does date a woman simply because she looks like a supermodel that he’s infatuated with,” said Selepak. “Alan Rickman buys a more expensive gift for his secretary because she’s young and attractive, and only gets his wife a CD.” And these are hardly the worst of the many terrible things the men of Love Actually do.

Selepak says that the film’s age also might be a reason for the disconnect I’m experiencing now, many years after the fact. “Because it’s 17 years old, and there’s a lot of aspects to the movie that seem a bit dated at this point, particularly after things like the Me Too movement, where you have the prime minister of England who essentially starts a romantic relationship with his employee. It’s obviously a huge problem with the power difference,” he said.

Yet Love Actually continues to have a strong fanbase. It’s the Christmas theme and the familiarity of those actors that help the film go down easy for its many advocates, suggests Selepak. “With Christmas movies, we don’t want the unexpected. Having actors in there that we know and we love makes the movie a little bit easier to connect with,” Selepak said. Hallmark, for example, does the same thing in their holiday movies. They often use the same actors and actresses, which creates a kind of intimacy between fans and the Hallmark movie catalog.

While the movie is highly unrealistic, some parts of it also provide escapism for the dreamiest of viewers. “Most of us would never take that kind of leap in terms of taking these actions,” said Selepak. “Whereas we could look at [Love Actually] now and see Andrew Lincoln going to his best friend’s apartment and professing his love. That’s kind of like John Cusack standing outside of a girl’s house holding up a boombox [in Say Anything],” Selepak said. “It’s just not the type of thing that we would do in real life, as much as we may want to.”

When it comes down to it, though, this film exploits the commercialized romance of the holidays to tell us we must support these haphazard romances. Because the central characters are lonely during Christmastime, fate has intervened to make sure they never have to spend another holiday alone or overwhelmingly horny. This is a clear implausibility, and the film will never win me onto its side — and I am not some bitter, soulless woman; I am simply a person who hates to see the world fooled.

I think of the film this way, in terms of its longest-lasting legacy: Love Actually begat the quick and dirty catalog of holiday rom-coms that roll their way onto streaming platforms every year. If Love Actually were released today, it would probably go straight to Netflix. It would be something we would collectively watch and publicly disdain, all of us in on the same joke. At best, we’d profess a fondness for it in spite of our better judgment, not out of sincere affection.

I’m telling you all this for your own benefit, reader. Ask yourself: If this movie took place in the middle of summer, would it be that romantic? Or would the heat expose the sweaty, hurried flaws in this film? Does it only draw us in because of its cozy winter siren call?

I vote yes: Love Actually is smoke and mirrors and snow, nothing more.

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