‘Love Actually’ Turns 20: Revisiting Its Incredible, Awful Greatness

In the years before Twitter was euthanized, I’d patiently wait for the onset of the holiday season, and the renewal in my feed of the great “Love Actually” Debate. Every year, the best and brightest of the world — middle management apparatchiks, underemployed magazine writers and hall of fame doomscrollers — would chime in, mostly on the nein side, and make their arguments with eloquence. My favorite was ‘You’re a fucking idiot.’

That one I heard a lot.

More from Variety

“Love Actually” turns 20 this month, and I thought it was time for a thorough revaluation. Was it still a glorious double-steak overstuffed Chipotle burrito of humanity, or would I now see it as they did — a foot-long Subway sandwich with way too many olives bought at a South Dakota gas station?

So I watched the movie again this week. I was struck with an unearned epiphany, the kind that you find in a middlebrow holiday romantic comedy. Turns out, I was going about my defense of the movie in the wrong way. I was trying to argue the merits of the performances of Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, the beauty of holiday-time London, and so on. I now realize the argument that can bring all of us together: “Love Actually” is amazing — and I’m paraphrasing Voltaire here — because everything about it is fucking nuts.

Think about it: You probably have some movie/record/performance that you love, but all your learned friends thought was rubbish. For me, it’s the Beach Boys’ “Surf Up” album, a sublime late-career effort that also features the tracks “Student Demonstration Time,” as bad as it sounds, and “Don’t Go Near the Water,” the corniest environmental song in all of Christendom. These are the two of the worst Beach Boys’ tracks ever recorded, and these guys are responsible for “Kokomo.”

In other words, embrace the insanity that is “Love Actually,” and we can all watch in peace.

LOVE ACTUALLY, Martine McCutcheon, Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, 2003, (c) Universal/courtesy Everett Collection
Martine McCutcheon, Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson

A little context. By 2003, Richard Curtis had written the insanely undervalued “The Tall Guy,” as well as “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill” and “Bridget Jones’ Diary.” He had personally re-invented the British romantic comedy, and provided Hugh Grant with the wealth and status that could make a young star go mad and seek relief on Sunset Boulevard. What he had not done was direct a movie. So, he decided to construct a nine-arc plot lightly centered around Christmas. Let me repeat that, nine plot arcs. The Old Testament was easier to follow.

Am I going to recount all nine arcs in an era of online attention deficit disorder? Oh yeah. Burn the boats.

First, the premise. “Love Actually” follows the romantic lives of a slew of heterosexual white people in cosmopolitan, London where over 40% of the population identifies as non-white. Check that: among the main players is the Brazilian heartthrob Rodrigo Santoro, as well as Chiwetel Ejiofor, who portrays a stick-figure newlywed with no backstory, except he could be cuckolded by his best friend at any moment. The movie checks in at 136 minutes. A 10th arc involving an aging lesbian couple was cut for — wait for it — time. According to Curtis’s script, London is a small town, while not everyone knows each other, they attend the same parties, listen to the same songs, and their children seemingly all go to the same elementary school. In an opening prologue, the British Prime Minister character talks about how he likes to go to the arrivals section at Heathrow and watch all the people re-unite in various degrees of undignified love. (Absolutely no one does this). He then says, “I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.”

Settle in! Here are the players.

(586 spoilers to come. If you have never watched — hate or otherwise — “Love Actually,” may God have mercy on your soul.)

Daniel and Sam
(Liam Neeson, Thomas Brodie-Sangster)

Daniel and Sam have just lost Joanna, Daniel’s wife and Sam’s mum. They mourn at her funeral, where the deceased insisted she be sent off to the tunes of the Bay City Rollers. (Joanna said Daniel could bring Claudia Schiffer as his date). Things are complicated by the fact that Daniel is only Sam’s stepfather. (Sam’s real father’s fate is never mentioned, he could be Tony Blair for all we know). The two negotiate their grief together as Sam is in love with a 10-year-old chanteuse named — heavy sigh — Joanna. Sam learns the drums so he can play in her Christmas band. Their story ends with Sam chasing Joanna through Heathrow, avoiding post 9/11 security that in real life would have had the entire airport evacuated. This is right after Daniel has run into Carol, a Claudia Schiffer doppelganger, at the Christmas concert. He is beyond smitten.

LOVE ACTUALLY, Thomas Sangster, Liam Neeson, 2003, (c) Universal/courtesy Everett Collection
Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Liam Neeson

Why this is nuts: This all happens within a month of the beloved Joanna being laid to rest. Her body, while no longer warm, hasn’t even decomposed. Carol is played by real-life Claudia Schiffer so Daniel is infatuated by his dream date reconfigured into someone named Carol. My brain hurts after writing that sentence. Neeson plays the grieving horndog Daniel with a level of solemnity that he apparently exhausted in himself, so he then devoted the rest of his career to stylish revenge porn.

Sam is charmingly played by Thomas who is now a great grown-up person actor. At one point, the film had Sam as an accomplished gymnast who did flips and tumbles past the Heathrow security staff. Fortunately, someone realized this was the worst idea since Colin Frissell. (More later). Unfortunately, Brodie-Sangster did not leave the project unscarred. He is now engaged to Elon Musk’s ex-wife.

And yet: The moment when Sam gets a kiss from Joanna, and then looks at Daniel with eyes full of triumph and love always melts my cold, American heart. The two have a chemistry rarely seen in father/kid movie relationships.

Jamie and Aurelia
(Colin Firth, Lucia Moniz)
Jamie is a drab man who goes to a wedding without his sick wife. He circles backs to check on her and, alas, she is banging his brother. I hate when that happens! Jamie is a mystery writer, it seems, so he escapes to his French cottage where he meets Aurelia, a Portuguese woman who serves as his cleaner. Jamie must be a filth monster because she is there all the time. The two do not share a language but share oh so many longing looks. One day, a breeze blows through his cottage and the pages of his book are — sigh — swept into a nearby lake. He has not made copies. Aurelia disrobes into her underwear to jump into the frigid water and retrieve the pages. The camera lingers on, uh, her tramp stamp.

LOVE ACTUALLY, Lucia Moniz, Colin Firth, 2003, (c) Universal/courtesy Everett Collection
Lucia Moniz, Colin Firth

This is when Jamie knows he is in love! Eventually, Jamie sadly retreats back to England, takes some Portuguese language classes, and on Christmas Eve realizes he doesn’t want to spend the holiday with his family, including his shag-happy homewrecker brother. He flies to France, where he tells Aurelia’s dad that he wants to marry her. Jamie and Aurelia’s extended clan march down to the restaurant where she works, and it turns out she has been taking English classes! She accepts his proposal. There is kissing.

Why this is nuts: The tramp stamp cue! What the hell?! Jamie’s lack of a personality and/or a pulse. Also, Curtis treats Aurelia’s Portuguese family as if they are an undiscovered tribe with no knowledge of civilization. (Aurelia’s sister thinks her father is selling her sister into white slavery.)

And yet: Jamie’s discovery of his wife and his brother’s tryst still haunts me. And I don’t even have a brother.

David and Natalie
(Hugh Grant, Natalie McCutcheon)

David is the bachelor prime minister. Natalie works at 10 Downing Street serving him tea and biscuits. (There is an actual scene where David asks during a meeting who he has to screw to get some tea and a chocolate biscuit, and Natalie wheels them in. Comedy!)

Natalie’s greatest challenge, according to Curtis, is her weight. No, really. Her boyfriend dumped Natalie because she put on some pounds, her dad calls her “plumpy,” and a minister’s aide refers to her “sizable ass.” A quick reminder that this film was made in 2003, not 1903. David is immediately overcome with upstairs/downstairs feelings for Natalie but tries to play it cool. So cool that when Natalie is sexually assaulted by the president of the United States, he takes the only action that a chivalrous man can take: He stands up to the president, and, uh, has Natalie transferred out of his office. Where, we do not know.

Some time later, David comes across a Christmas card from Natalie in a theoretically random pile. She says she loves him. David tracks her down, and they go to the local school Christmas concert where they make out as the world watches. The last we see of them is the prime minister returning to Heathrow and Natalie jumping into his arms. “God, you weigh a lot,” says David. I am not kidding.

Why this is nuts: The whole thing. The #MeToo movement may have been inspired by this film. Then there’s Billy Bob Thornton playing the American president as some kind of Clinton/Nixon mashup. Also? Curtis’ obsession with weight. (Other characters are called “chubs” and “Miss Dunkin Donuts 2003.”)

And yet: Hugh Grant’s goddamn rom-com charisma and inherent ability to make even a dithering dickhead seem charming. Martine McCutcheon’s eyes and Natalie’s ability to rise above said dickhead without appearing a doormat.

Colin Frissell
(Kris Marshall)

Colin is an unattractive man. He is coarse. His jokes are terrible. Also, Colin believes that if he can only get to America, he will get laid because he has a “big knob.” He loads up a backpack full of condoms and lights out for Milwaukee, where he meets three women — including January Jones — who invite him back to their pad where they can only afford one bed. It gets stuffy there, so everyone sleeps naked. A month later, Colin returns to London with Denise Richards and Shannon Elizabeth on his arm. Roll credits.

Why this is nuts: This is the worst subplot that has ever appeared in a movie. Tonally, it is disconnected from the rest of the film, like a week old Lunchable served with a grassfed T-bone steak. Maybe Curtis lost a bet.

And yet: You cannot look away from the carnage.

Harry, Karen and Mia
(Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Heike Makatsch)

Harry is a self-described “classic fool,” but since this is a Richard Curtis film, he has a benevolent job running an Oxfam-like organization that helps citizens of the third world. He has two children and a loving wife. Karen keeps busy looking after the kids and nurturing her friend Daniel through his grief — she tells Daniel that no one will want to shag him if he is sad. (This is before the funeral). Oh yeah, she is also the prime minister’s sister. One day, Karen turns on some Joni Mitchell and Harry asks what the hell she is playing. Karen reminds him that Joni Mitchell taught her how to love.

The fact that Harry does not remember this is not a good sign! In fact, Harry has become infatuated with Mia, his new assistant who sits in an un-lady-like style, wears devil horns to the office Christmas party, lives in a Bond villain rowhouse and lets Harry know she is his for the taking.

LOVE ACTUALLY, Heike Makatsch, Alan Rickman, 2003, (c) Universal/courtesy Everett Collection
Heike Makatsch, Alan Rickman

Harry and Karen go Christmas shopping. Harry slips away to buy a gold necklace for Mia but is delayed by an excruciating gift-wrapper played by Mr. Bean. (OK, Rowan Atkinson.) Karen sees the gold necklace and is excited because she thinks it is for her. On Christmas Eve, she opens her present. It is not a gold necklace. It is a goddamned Joni Mitchell CD. Fuck this guy.

Karen kicks him out, and Harry’s punishment…is a month-long walkabout? (The family has an uncertain reunion at Heathrow).

Why this is nuts: Karen is the Lois Weisberg of the movie. (Look it up.) Rickman is great as Harry, a dour and stuck middle-ager, but there’s no way Karen takes him back. She’ll instead have her brother the prime minister fix her up with the U.K.’s ambassador to Luxembourg. Also “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” a classic Rickman rom-com is still not available in most formats. That is a crime.

And yet: Karen has the best line in the film, when she confronts her wandering husband with this zinger: “Would you wait around to find out if it’s just a necklace, or if it’s sex and a necklace, or if, worst of all, it’s a necklace and love? Would you stay, knowing life would always be a little bit worse? Or would you cut and run?”

Hard to imagine this was written by the guy who created Colin Frissell. The world is a mysterious place.

John and Judy
(Martin Freeman, Joanna Page)

John and Judy meet on a film set where they work as stand-ins. As the production proceeds, they get to know each other slowly. Eventually, John works up the courage to ask Judy out to do something Christmassy. She accepts, and they go to the same Christmas school concert everyone else is going to because the rest of the city is apparently on lockdown. In the epilogue, we see them at Heathrow and they are engaged. They look happy.

LOVE ACTUALLY, Martin Freeman, Joanna Page, 2003, (c) Universal/courtesy Everett Collection
Martin Freeman, Joanna Page

Why this is nuts: John and Judy work as stand-ins on a porn film. John massages Judy’s breasts from behind while they talk about traffic. He gratefully thanks her for saying yes to his Christmas date while she is sitting on his face. Here’s the thing: That job does not exist. (I’ve made some discreet inquiries.) John is the only sensible man in the movie, no way he is taking her to a random Christmas snoozer featuring 10-year-olds singing holiday mush.

And yet: They make a cute couple.

Sarah and Karl
(Laura Linney, Rodrigo Santoro)

Sit down and draw close to the fire as I relate the sadder-than-sad story of Sarah. She works for Harry at the do-gooder place. Everyone knows she has been in love with Karl, the organization’s model-quality design director. There is a problem. Her cellphone is always ringing with calls from her mentally ill brother who is in a long-term care facility. Sarah and her brother are American orphans — we know not why — so she bears all the responsibility for him.

Sarah and Karl dance at the Christmas party under the watchful eye of Karen — who is perhaps the original Karen. They then head back to her place. When Karl says he wants to stay, Sarah excuses herself and goes into her stairwell where she does a joyous three-second end-zone dance. They undress. Her mobile goes off. Karl patiently waits. Sarah explains the situation. Karl understands and is kind. They get at it again, and the mobile goes off again. This time baby brother wants Sarah to come down to the facility. Sarah says goodbye to Karl. She will spend the rest of her life alone.

Why this is nuts: This is Laura Linney! She does not end up alone. It just can’t be. Come to think about it, why are the women in “Love Actually” constantly getting shafted? Dipshit prime minister, wayward husbands, Colin Frissell, etc… This must not stand.

And yet: Linney’s joyful dance is all-timer. It is one of the greatest organic moments of happiness ever captured on film.

Billy Mack and Joe
(Bill Nighy, Gregor Fisher)

Billy Mack is the diseased soul of “Love Actually.” He is a fiftyish faded rock star with a shock of white hair, trying to make a comeback with a cover of “Love Is All Around Us,” tweaked awfully to “Christmas Is All Around Us.” We check in, and as he describes his song as a “festering turd,” he tells a kid-show audience, “Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don’t buy drugs. The nervous hosts node approvingly, but Billy is not done. “Become a pop star and they give you them for free!”
Joe, his faithful manager, is always wringing his hands in the background, and shepherding Mack to his next promotional appearance. Miraculously, Billy Mack’s single is England’s Christmas No 1. He is instantaneously invited to Elton John’s Christmas party, and leaves Joe slinking off alone. But that’s not how the story ends. A little later, Billy circle backs to Joe’s desultory flat, which is full of Billy Mack memorabilia. After some hemming and hawing he tells Joe that he is the platonic love of his life. And then he mumbles the memorable line: “Now let’s get pissed, and watch some porn.”

Why this is nuts: Nothing, beside the lingering image that the two geezers are going to get wasted and then pleasure themselves. Many consider this among Nighy’s best work, and I agree, but I want to ask him why he twitches so much. He acts like a dog afraid he is about to be hit on the nose with a newspaper. Neurological damage? Drug flashback? We need an Actors on Actors interview. We know Billy is a pig and relic from another time, but I’m not sure that justifies his character saying that Britney Spears was a lousy lay. Britney would have been 21 at the time, at least 30 years younger than Billy. Yuck.

And yet: Nighy’s Mack skewers the idea of 21st Century capitalism Christmas, with all its crassness and vulgarity. He doesn’t think he’s better than Christmas, but he knows much of it is shit. In the end, he knows what is important in life, a best friend and pornography.

Julie, Peter and Mark
(Keira Knightley, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Andrew Lincoln)

LOVE ACTUALLY, Andrew Lincoln, 2003, (c) Universal/courtesy Everett Collection
Andrew Lincoln

Good God, this one hasn’t aged well. We first meet this threesome at Juliet and Mark’s wedding. Peter is the best man and assures Mark there won’t be any pranks like the time he hired Brazilian prostitutes who turned out to be men (clunk) for the stag party. Juliet enters the church looking like some kind of Aryan virgin princess. The ceremony goes off without a hitch, but during the recessional the choir loft opens, and the couple is serenaded with the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” complete with horns and a guitar solo. That Peter, what a scamp!

Later, Juliet stops by Peter’s place, looking for extra wedding footage. Peter doesn’t want to turn it over, and then we find out why: It’s full of close-ups of Juliet, with Mark zoomed out. Juliet is baffled; she didn’t even think Peter liked her. He mumbles something about self-preservation and skedaddles out of his own pad.

Poor Mark, he knows nothing! Closer to Christmas, someone rings the bell at Mark and Juliet’s. Mark thinks its carol singers and tells them to bugger off. If only! There are no carol singers, It’s Peter, and he has a boom box playing Christmas carols and — in the film’s signature scene — is holding giant white poster boards like Bob Dylan in that famous video. The cards hold a lot of gibberish expressing his love and saying bananas stuff like “At Christmas You Tell The Truth.” Peter says he doesn’t expect anything in return. After a moment, Juliet chases after him, and gives him a single kiss on the lips.

Why this is nuts: Because the next scene isn’t Mark coming after Peter with a hammer. The whole shebang is bananas. Dude has not ever had a five- minute conversation with Juliet and he’s showing up with cue cards? And at Christmas you do not tell the truth. If you did, you wouldn’t be spending it with your family.

And yet: Well, there’s some pretty thin gruel on this one. The three don’t end up at the Christmas concert? OK, I’ve got something: The whole subplot allows Sarah to sidle up to Peter at the wedding reception and ask the reasonable question: Is he gay for Mark? Peter’s squirrely semi-offensive reaction removes any need for sympathizing with him for the rest of our time together. Years later, Mark awakes from a coma in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, and well, his life didn’t turn out so great. (OK, that was Andrew Lincoln, the actor, but let’s pretend.)

Upon further reflection, I now realize that “Love Actually” makes little sense and some of the characters could be brought up on charges for their actions. But that’s why it’s good. It is nuts, but real life is nuts. It is messy and full of freaks like Mark and Colin Frissell. There will always be good people like Sarah and Joe that give way more than they get. And yet we make our way through the Christmas parties and traffic at the Grove to make it home to the people we love, no matter how nuts they may be or own psychological damage. We save each other.

Jesus, I’m going to say it: love is all around us.

And that’s that. Thanks to all five of you who took the full 136 minutes to read this. Happy holidays. I will be back next week with my rehabilitation of “Quigley Down Under.”

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.