Wednesday, December 25, 2013

CANON OF FILM: "LOVE, ACTUALLY"

LOVE, ACTUALLY (2003)

Director/Screenplay: Richard Curtis



Richard Curtis has never been above, blatantly leaving a message inside what seems like the most typical and soppy and even sitcom-ish comedy and romantic-comedy material. He's done that on some of his sitcoms, like "The Vicar of Dibley", and even more recently in the TV movie "The Girl in the Cafe". People, might not remember "Love, Actually" in that regard, but it's there, right at the beginning with a strange opening sequence, that involves arrivals at Heathrow Airport, and Hugh Grant's narration, presumably in character, as the "The Prime Minister", where he talks about, how love, is the prominent emotion that connects us the world over. He also mentions, the Twin Towers, something that, if you think about it, he didn't have to do. In fact, without that mention, the movie could've hypothetically taken place, at practically any time period. This isn't a message from the character, or a soliloquy of his own thoughts, this is a prologue from Curtis himself, using his most famous stand-in for him. (Grant worked with Curtis originally in "Four Weddings and a Funeral," where Grant, admitted to essentially playing Curtis in the film, and then later worked with him in both "Bridget Jones" movies, as well as "Notting Hill".) Yeah, to some extent it was important to start placing even romantic-comedies in a post-9/11 world, but this one in particular, needed to be set in that world, and set in that world immediately, to let us know that this isn't just a film with multiple characters, in numerous romantic-comedy situations, this is a declaration about how he sees the world, and how love, is truly the central emotion that controls the world.

There's a perception that romantic-comedies are somehow a lower level of film than more serious genres, but actually they're one of the toughest to pull off. I can list the few great ones made this century on one hand, and "Love, Actually" is right at the top of that shortlist. It doesn't hurt that the film takes place at Christmastime, where all emotions are higher than normal in the world, whether we want them to or not. What they all need for there to be any kind level of good, is idealism, which is of course, the only real ingredient needed for love, the ability to idealize another person, and for se person to do the same for you. Sometimes that's a mental connection, over a physical one, like John and Judy (Martin Freeman and Joanna Page) the two veteran body doubles working together on a movie, who are just happy that the other is somebody worth talking to. (That does happen less often on movie sets than one would think, especially for performers.) Sometimes it's proximity, like Jamie and Aurelia (Colin Firth and Lucia Moniz) after Aurelia works as a housekeeper at Jamie's France home, where he's gone to write after his wife cheated on him with his brother. They start to know and care for each other, despite neither able to speak the same language. Some of the messages are less subtle like that relationship, the belief that love can conquer all obstacles, including a lack of ability to communicate. Yes, you can look at the film as though each relationship and/or couple, or story, is essentially a message about how relationships work. Obviously the most infamous one involves the Prime Minister, who's taken his place at 10 Downey St., only to fall in love with the plucky maid Natalie (Martine McCutcheon). He knows that there's nothing that can possibly be worst at that moment, to have to deal with unrequited love, and of a subordinate at your job, especially when you're the most powerful person on in the country, but he tries. When the American President (Billy Bob Thornton) makes his visit, and he makes a pass at her, (And what an unenviable position that is) the Prime Minister makes a defense of England during a joint press conference that was suppose to promote their special relationship. Clearly, there's more going on in that, scene, but, it's not the main intention to be making political subtexts, it's showing how love can be the catalyst to cause some to do amazing things they otherwise might not have. Richard Curtis really does take the time to create fully developed characters, and remember his main message, love, and the awe-inspiring and incredible range of emotions and actions that love inspires. The one moment I always think about with this film, isn't one of euphoric joy, but one of complete devastation. Mark's (Andrew Lincoln) best friends with Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Best Man at his wedding to Juliet (Keira Knightley), but unbeknownst to either of them, Mark's falling in love with Juliet, but has resorted to hiding that emotion by being standoffish towards her, giving the perception that he doesn't like her. Then, she sees the wedding video that he shot, and his entire facade completely crumbles. You can see the exact moment in Juliet's face, when she's about to speak, and suddenly it all clicks. He really has nothing he can do or say, so he gets out of his flat, and walks around the streets of London as Dido's "Here With Me" starts playing. There's an interesting way Curtis uses pop songs, throughout his work, but if you watch closely enough in "Love, Actually" the music seems to bleed through from one scene to the next. The Dido song keeps playing in the next scene where Prime Minister asks that Natalie work somewhere else. A Christmas #1 song contest is the subject of one subplot involving an aging rock star, Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) who's remaking "Love is All Around" (An in-joke here, that was a hit song from the Curtis-penned "Four Weddings and a Funeral") as a blatantly bad Christmas song to try to make another hit again, but Mack is too old and used-up to even bother promoting it with anything other than brute honesty about how bad he is. Another song, "All I Want for Christmas is You", from Mariah Carey, is used throughout multiple points in the film as well, as well as a subtle guitar and piano score by Craig Armstrong, used strategically, as well as songs that represent characters like the Pointer Sisters' "Jump", and Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now".  Music, also has the ability seems to connect different people from different places and backgrounds, often at the same time as and often people are completely unaware about it.

The other strength of the movie is it's length. It's well over two and a half hours, but it allows for us to have the time to learn about each character, and even more importantly than allowing for the time (And having an incredible cast of actors to pull this film off; acting in romantic-comedies, is also a severely underrated skill.) it actually uses it, and doesn't cheapen any of the stories with shallow character. Laura Linney's character Sarah, is one of the most interesting. Working for Harry (Alan Rickman) at his firm, she's had a crush on Karl (Rodrigo Santoro), the company's copier since she started working. She failed miserably at trying to hide it, but even when called out, she can't seem to make a move. When after a Christmas party, they're finally in her bed, her pesky mobile phone rings again. It's bad enough that you're unable to make a move when it's right there, but  completely disheartening, when there's someone else who needs you to take care and love them, in her case, a mentally-disturbed brother. We had seen her cell go off numerous times without an explanation. The joke of the phone ringing at the inopportune tune, is usually funny, but it's not funny here, because the important thing is how she reacts to the call, and her actions afterwards. Another involves Harry, who we learn is married with kids to Karen (Emma Thompson), who suddenly finds himself the object of Mia's (Heike Makatsch) affections, and he makes a classically bad decision regarding Christmas giftgiving, one that Karen sees coming a mile away, and Harry can too, but he's unable to stop it. These sequences wouldn't be as powerful, if we hadn't been well-introduced to the characters. The fun and at-times sardonically flirtatious way Harry is around the workplace, or as we see the daily day-to-day struggles of Karen, having to paper mache her kid's lobster costume for the Nativity play. The best overall sequence, involves the love of a widowed stepfather, Daniel (Liam Neeson) going through an impossible grief, with his stepson Sam (Thomas Sangster), who's going through the even worst agony of being in love with a girl at school. I always equate this scene to the Marsha Brady/Davy Jones story of the parents helping her get Davy Jones to cover for her lie at school for a concert, no matter how improbable. Somehow it works on multiple levels. A father relating to his son, a widower coming to terms with his late wife's passing, and a young man, already predestined by dozens of rom-coms before his, to try and catch the girl of his dreams as she leaves for the airport. Better to get it out of the way now, I guess, when you're still young.

Even in it's darkest moments, love tends to triumph somehow, and ultimately in "Love, Actually", even when the movie probably should be it's most cynical, like Colin's (Kris Marshall) ill-advised trip to Wisconsin, convinced he'll do better with women in America, it isn't. That's why it ultimately holds up. It's always hopeful, and yes, always idealistic, unlike the multiple other films that have since tried to steal the structure of "Love, Actually". They have the format, they don't have the music, or the talent of Richard Curtis, one of the best writers in the world. In many ways, this might be the ultimate romantic-comedy, and probably why so few since have even remotely been comparable since. There's enough material for multiple films, and the skill involved in combining them in an Altmanesque structure, and still feel satisfied and not seem like we've been from cutting these stories down is incredibly hard. There was supposedly another hour of material cut from the movie's original cut, so the stories were full and strong to begin with, and you can feel that in the film.
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