If George Bailey and his heavenly sidekick Clarence don’t get you in the holiday spirit any more (perhaps, like me, you’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life just one too many times?), allow me to propose another movie that should become a Christmas perennial: Richard Curtis’ Love Actually.
Curtis, a British writer and director who also gave the world Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, the imperfect Pirate Radio and the under–valued The Tall Guy, hit all the marks with this 2003 holiday offering, with a cast consisting of many of England’s finest actors.
It’s warm and toasty, it’s extremely funny, it’s bright and well–made, and most of all, even its admitted contrivances make sense in the context of the plot.
Here’s the deal: It’s five weeks before Christmas, and as the days and weeks are counted down, a half–dozen scenarios unfold. Although several intersect at some point or another, the stories don’t really have much to do with one another.
Just look at this cast: Bill Nighy, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, Rowan Atkinson (from Blackadder and Mr. Bean, both Curtis concoctions) and Martine McCutcheon (TV’s EastEnders).
Americans Laura Linney, Billy Bob Thornton, January Jones and Andrew Lincoln are in there, too.
(Should you think all British romantic comedies are genetically stellar, have a look at this year’s bloody awful The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which saddled Nighy — along with Maggie Smith and Tom Wilkinson! — with a preposterous script.)
The gaunt, deadpanned Nighy plays over–the–hill rock singer Billy Mack (very much like his character in the brilliant Still Crazy), who’s making a last–ditch run at the charts with an updated–for–Yuletide rendition of the Troggs’ “Love is All Around” (“Christmas is All Around”).
Billy Mack is blunt, to say the least. “If you believe in Father Christmas, children, like your Uncle Billy does, buy my festering turd of a record,” he says during a radio interview. “And particularly enjoy the incredible crassness of the moment when we try to squeeze an extra syllable into the fourth line.”
Grant is the country’s new prime minister, and on his first day at 10 Downing Street he starts to fall for one of the office “tea girls” (McCutcheon).
This is the “boy meets girl, boy loses girl but still has to run the country” scenario, and it plays out in interludes throughout Love Actually.
In one of the best scenes, the PM is trying to find his love’s home (on the “dodgy end” of Harris Street in Wendsworth). He knocks on every door, and is duly recognized.
Old lady: Aren’t you the Prime Minister?
PM: Yes, in fact, I am. Merry Christmas.
Old lady: Oh!
PM: Part of the service now. Trying to get ‘round to everyone by New Year’s Eve.
A trio of little girls asks if he’s a caroler. When he says he’s not, they beg him to sing anyway. So the PM and his driver break into a spirited rendition of “Good King Wenceslas,” right there on the sidewalk.
Rickman and Thompson are a long–married couple whose relationship is tested when he finds himself attracted to an extremely flirtatious secretary in his office.
Knightley’s newlywed is the object of unrequited affection from her husband’s best friend.
Neeson plays Daniel, a widower coping not only with the premature death of his wife, but with her troubled young son Sam, who’s hopelessly in love with a girl at school but can’t make headway with her.
Sam comes to his stepdad for advice.
“We need Kate, and we need Leo, and we need them now,” Daniel tells Sam, and they bond over a viewing of Titanic on the DVD player.
Firth’s character is a cuckolded, frustrated writer named Jamie, who isolates himself in the French countryside to work, only to develop a powerful attraction to his Portuguese housekeeper Aurelia, who doesn’t speak English.
When he returns to London, Jamie takes an awkward course in Portuguese, in order to communicate with her.
Another highlight of Love Actually: On Christmas Eve, he flies to Portugal to propose.
Jamie (in Portuguese): Beautiful Aurelia, I’ve come here with a view of asking you to marriage me. I know I seems an insane person — because I hardly knows you — but sometimes things are so transparency, they don’t need evidential proof. And I will inhabit here, or you can inhabit with me in England.
Aurelia’s sister (in Portuguese): Definitely go for England, girl. You’ll meet Prince William — then you can marry him instead.
Two pornographic movie body doubles (Martin Freeman and Joanna Page) shyly discuss their lives and make wholesome plans for a first date — all this while stark–naked and simulating sex acts on a film set.
What does this have to do with Christmas, you ask? Everything. Not only do the events of Love Actually take place smack in the midst of the season in a chilly, bustling, celebratory London, everyone involved discovers what giving — and love, actually — mean.
Or, as Billy Mack tells a TV audience:
“Hiya kids. Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don’t buy drugs ... become a pop star, and they give you them for free!”
Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.
When: At 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8
Tickets: A donation to Free Fab’rik (eligible items include school–friendly clothing such as dresses, jeans, tops, jewelry and accessories). Call 525–5040 for more information.If George