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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Fun actually

‘Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the website, not an idea was stirring, not even a mini-byte.

Okay, lots of ideas are stirring, but what’s a good topic for the Yuletide season? Maybe it’s time to revisit my favorite Christmas-themed movie of the year, Richard Curtis’s Love Actually. When I first wrote about it in October, I studiously avoided mentioning anything about the plot because, for me personally, much of the fun of this film was in some of the casting surprises. The gloves are off now (I’m going to name names), so if you still haven’t seen this movie and want to be surprised, bookmark this page and read it some other time.

When I saw Love Actually at the Cork Film Festival, I figured it was going to be a hit in the same vein as another film written by Curtis, Four Weddings and Funeral. Or maybe bigger, given its all-star, high-profile cast. It does indeed seem to have done well on both sides of the Atlantic, spending a good few weeks on both hemispheres’ top ten lists, but it hasn’t really generated the buzz that I expected. (Or maybe I just missed it.) More surprisingly, the big media reviews were not all that favorable. Then last month there was a major piece about the film in the News Review section of London’s Sunday Times by Bryan Appleyard, which not only dumped on Love Actually but on Richard Curtis’s work in general. Appleyard’s attitude was summed up in the article’s front-page teaser: “Fake, actually.”

Appleyard’s first major complaint was that Curtis’s “London is not remotely like mine.” He says that the real London is not nearly as happy and love-filled as in Curtis’s films. (Curtis was also a writer on the films Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary as well as its coming sequel. He also wrote for the Blackadder and Mr. Bean TV series.) Of course, if Curtis’s London isn’t grim or rough enough for Appleyard, there’s an easy enough solution to the problem. He just needs to stick to Mike Leigh films.

Appleyard goes on to put Love Actually in a long line of British movies that, according to him, seem to exist only to entice Americans to become tourists in the UK. Everything is too quaint, too picturesque, too recognizable, he says. He then goes on to decry the trend in both American and British TV and movies to feature “a quasi-familial group of friends roughly in their thirties” who are “brittle and empty urban types” and “lovable inadequates.” In the States, these types of characters are exemplified by Seinfeld and Friends. In the UK, the equivalents are Cold Feet and Coupling. Amazingly, Appleyard contends that the general British public are so influenced by these movies and TV shows that they have begun to imitate the characters. As Appleyard writes, “The ‘Oh, I’m so hopeless’ posture is now a commonplace of street, restaurant and shop life.” Say, Bryan, here’s a wacky idea, but do you suppose that maybe it’s the other way around? Maybe the movies are actually reflecting the way many real people talk and act?

Perhaps Appleyard’s most off-the-mark judgment is that Hugh Grant turn as the British Prime Minister is “his most staggeringly implausible performance yet.” Au contraire, this is clearly the role that Grant was born to play. When we see No. 10 Downing Street and the Prime Minister’s limo arriving and then Hugh Grant emerges, it is just perfect. For some reason I had never thought of it before, but Hugh Grant and Tony Blair are very nearly separated at birth. Okay, they are not identical twins, and the boyish Blair has aged in the job to the point where he is no longer as boyish as Grant, but they are very similar personas. Of course, Grant isn’t actually playing Blair. He’s playing a fictitious PM who happens to be a bachelor. But let’s face it, he’s Tony Blair. He’s youngish (compared to most pols), he’s glib and articulate, and he’s empathetic. It’s a perfect marriage of character and actor. It’s harder to tell who Billy Bob Thornton is playing in his surprise cameo (hey, I told you there were spoilers) as the President of the United States. His wandering eye, settling on the comely tea lady, makes us think he is supposed to be Bill Clinton. But his heavy-handed attitude of “do it my way or no way” is clearly meant to evoke George W. Bush. Obviously, he is meant to be both, throwing cold water on the illusion among the American left that the rest of the world sees a huge difference between Clinton and Bush or any other American president for that matter.

An extraordinary moment for me while watching the film was the scene where Grant’s Prime Minister refuses to follow the script at a joint press conference and publicly tells Thornton’s prez that Britain will not blindly follow America’s lead. At this, the audience in the Cork Opera House exploded into spontaneous applause. Even as the cheering died down, one emotionally overcome fellow in my row continued to clap for several minutes all by himself, his eyes welling with tears. Obviously, this scene struck a chord with that particular audience. I don’t know the precise demographics of that particular audience, but I assume most were Irish, with the rest being a smattering of Brits and other Europeans. Clearly, the idea of the British Prime Minister standing up to America was something they had been longing for and not seeing lately. Of course, the issue at hand had nothing to do with Iraq (which no doubt was foremost in the minds of the audience) and the PM’s backbone did not come from any important principle or set of values but out of jealousy that the prez was hitting on the same tea lady that he himself fancied. If this doesn’t get to the heart of (male-dominated) politics, I don’t know what does. Moreover, this scene demonstrates that Curtis does indeed know his audience. The same “Oh, I’m so hopeless” singleton yuppies who recognize themselves in Curtis’s movies are also likely to trend leftward politically on both sides of the Atlantic and so would welcome a British rebuke to American policy, no matter how vague or perfunctory. Moreover, this same demographic is not likely to be put off by the spectacle of the same major world leader lusting after a young junior staffer. (Hey, at least he’s not married.)

That’s what it really comes down to, isn’t it? Richard Curtis knows his audience and he gives them what they want. They want to see a comfortable and familiar Great Britian. They want to see characters who are much like themselves or at least like people that they know. They want a few good laughs along the way. And they want some warm, touching moments. He’s not making a documentary, and he’s not making a naturalistic drama. Maybe you don’t want all your movies to be like this, but what’s wrong with a little escapism and pure entertainment? Really, Mr. Bryan “Grinch” Appleyard, what’s so bad about feeling good?

-S.L., 18 December 2003

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