what i'm watching: not love, but crap, actually

Tonight I tried again to watch "Love Actually", and once again am left shaking my head in disgust (at the movie) and disbelief (in its popularity, among people who ought to know better). Why does everyone love this movie? Why is it hailed as the great ode to love and romance and a beloved holiday-season classic? It is not romantic. It is not funny. It is crap.

I should start by saying that I didn't want to see "Love Actually". The presence of Hugh Grant alone is enough to drive me away. But so many people - people I respect! people with brains and thoughtful opinions! - said that they liked it. One smart man said the movie had "all the markers of a movie I should hate," but he ended up thinking it was wonderful. All right, then. I'll give it a go. Costs me nothing. Wrong!

Tonight I tried a third time to watch the film (the first two tries unsuccessful), so that I could tally (a) fat jokes, (b) older male bosses drooling over too-young subordinates, and (c) moments of intrusive, manipulative soundtrack, but I lost count and gave up. This is a movie so heavy-handed - and with so little respect for its audience - that it must break out into loud, sweeping Romance Music every time Feelings Are Present. Did you hear that? That there's the sound of Feelings! Get it, didya, huh? Here it comes again, listen to the Big Music, kiddies, Feelings again!

Feelings of some kind, but not love. Love is not present. Hardly ever. One would-be lover after the next can't tell the difference between love and lust. Nothing wrong with lust. I'm all for lust. But this is supposedly a movie about love. And no romantic comedy worth two hours of your life confuses the two.

Christopher Orr, in The Atlantic, calls "Love Actually" "the least romantic film of all time". He writes:
I think it offers up at least three disturbing lessons about love. First, that love is overwhelmingly a product of physical attraction and requires virtually no verbal communication or intellectual/emotional affinity of any kind. Second, that the principal barrier to consummating a relationship is mustering the nerve to say “I love you” — preferably with some grand gesture — and that once you manage that, you’re basically on the fast track to nuptial bliss. And third, that any actual obstacle to romantic fulfillment, however surmountable, is not worth the effort it would require to overcome.

Begin with the elevation of physical attraction over any of the other factors typically associated with romantic compatibility: similar likes and dislikes, overlapping senses of humor, shared values, what have you. Grant falls in love with McCutcheon the first time he speaks with her — “Get a grip,” he chides himself moments afterward — when essentially the only thing he knows about her is that she accidentally uses profanity a lot. (Charming? Sure. Evidence of a soul mate? Unlikely.) Firth and Moniz, meanwhile, fall in love despite not sharing a word of language in common. Moreover, the movie telegraphs very clearly that the moment when Firth really falls for Moniz is when he watches her strip down to her underwear.

The film is a considerable outlier among romantic comedies in its rigorous conviction that people don’t even need to learn anything about each other to confirm their initial attraction.

The pattern is repeated throughout the film.
Some of the supposed romances - like Grant's - are merely ridiculous and non-credible. But others are downright disgusting. Alan Rickman lusts after his beautiful and sexually available assistant. He buys expensive jewelry for the object of his desire, which his lovely and age-appropriate but same-old-same-old wife Emma Thompson finds in his pocket. Thompson marvels, thinking Rickman wants to re-kindle their romance... until she finds a Joni Mitchell CD under the tree. Rickman is well pleased with himself for remembering that his "cold English wife" "still" listens to Joni Mitchell, even though her clothes look like Pavarotti's hand-me-downs, and why are we following this story? Where is the love, actually?

Another supposedly romantic plotline sees a man stalking his best friend's wife, because... because... because she is so hot! Back to Orr here.
Creepiest of all is the storyline involving Lincoln and Knightley. Why is he so desperately in love with his best friend’s bride? Well, it’s not the result of any conversation they’ve had or experience they’ve shared, because the movie is at pains to note that he’s barely spoken to her and he goes out of his way to avoid her company. Indeed, the video tribute to her bridal radiance that he records at her wedding makes pretty clear what it is about her that so captivates him. (Hint: not her mind.) And he, too, like Neeson, ultimately suggests that the only way he will ever get over this love of his life is by hooking up with a supermodel. I’m barely scratching the surface of what’s wrong with this subplot—the movie’s worst—which somehow manages to present the idea that it’s romantic to go behind a friend’s back to ostentatiously declare your everlasting love for his wife. But let’s not get off track.

This is the point at which defenders of the film will reply, reasonably enough: So what? In movies beautiful people always fall in love with other beautiful people! What’s wrong with love at first sight, anyway? Which are both fair responses, as far as they go. But 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, but that they don’t even need to learn anything about each other to confirm their initial attraction.

This is not some abstruse or esoteric component of high-end cinema. The core of most romantic comedies — the core, for that matter, of most romantic comedies written and/or directed by Richard Curtis — is one form or another of mutual exploration between potential lovers. Some movies do it well and some do it poorly, but almost all at least make an effort to do it. The protagonists bicker their way into love (27 Dresses, Sweet Home Alabama, Something's Gotta Give ...). The guy gradually persuades the gal that he’s worthy, or vice versa (Groundhog Day, Knocked Up, Working Girl ...). One helps the other overcome a foolish obsession with a Mr. (or Mrs.) Wrong (The Wedding Singer, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, While You Were Sleeping ...). The free spirit teaches the control freak to let go and embrace life (Along Came Polly, Pretty Woman, The Ugly Truth ...). Opposites discover that they are attracted (Two Weeks Notice, Notting Hill, Maid in Manhattan ...). Etc., etc. My point is in no way to suggest that these are all good movies. (They’re emphatically not.) Rather it is to point out just how far outside the ordinary it is that none of Love Actually’s fated couples spends any meaningful time getting to know one another at all.
And let's not even start on the sexism. Maybe it makes sense in a movie where lust is mistaken for love that women are portrayed exclusively as objects, and anyone whose bones aren't visible in an off-shoulder top is fat-shamed, and a woman who takes care of her mentally ill sibling will die alone because all that nurturing gets in the way of sex, and fathers tell their creepily mature 11-year-old sons that the only way to get over the death of the great love of your life is by having crazy sex with a supermodel.

So maybe all that hideous sexism is to be expected. But it's still disturbing. For the low-down on that, read this skewering review at Jezebel.

Perhaps the only honest line in the entire film is Joni Mitchell's rich contralto singing, "I really don't know love at all." You don't suppose Richard Curtis is commenting on his own film?

No comments: