Anyone's who's logged into Netflix lately has no doubt noted the presence of Love Actually in the "Popular on Netflix" category. That's because the British comedy has become something of a modern classic for the holiday season. But not everyone sees it that way.
The ensemble film with nine different plots set around Christmas hit theaters in 2003 to high anticipation. Not only was this filmmaker Richard Curtis' follow-up to the popular Four Weddings and Funeral and Notting Hill, but it also boasted so many popular British stars that there was no way it could fail, right? Well... while some fans are still devoted to the film, they're the first to admit that it's an imperfect movie. But while TVGuide.com editor Joyce Eng embraces the film's range of stories and strong performances, fellow editor Hanh Nguyen is put off by the often depressing plots and creepy, male-centric take on so-called romance.
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Keep on reading to see how Joyce defends the film while Hanh Grinches it up, plot by plot:
Uncle Billy and his fat manager
The gist: Aging rocker Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) records a Christmas version of "Love Is All Around" and goes on a whirlwind promotion tour in which he's crasser than crass and constantly insults his "fat manager" Joe (Gregor Fisher). Unbelievably, the song hits No. 1, and after partying with Elton John, Billy realizes he misses his friend and spends the rest of the evening with Joe.
Joyce: This is my favorite story line. It's not a romantic love affair or a familial bond, but a portrait of friendship. And it sort of sneaks up on you behind Billy Mack's aging rock star bravado that morphs into a bumbling, vulnerable confession of platonic love. They have had a wonderful life getting pissed and watching porn. Besides, what's a more important foundation for love than friendship?
Hanh: I'll admit that Nighy is a blast to watch as a blowhard who doesn't give a f--- in the best possible, candid way. But as a love story, even one of longstanding friendship, it rings false. Had Billy invited Joe to Elton's party to celebrate what they had earned together, instead of joining him afterward, I might have bought it. Lame.
Rick Grimes, Solomon Northup and Elizabeth Swann
The gist: Mark (Andrew Lincoln) is the perfect pal to Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor)... except that he's in love with his best friend's girl, Juliet (Keira Knightley). She stumbles upon his secret, and even though she doesn't return his feelings, the two make a tacit agreement to keep the truth from Peter.
Joyce: I have a rule for certain movies and shows: You can't think about them too much. Just take them for what they are and enjoy them, otherwise you'll live in a world of hatred and greed. So yes, I squee at Mark's flash cards and I feel bad for him in this unrequited secret love triangle, but I also know that this plot line is kind of terrible. He's coming clean at his last stand, so to speak, with the cards, but it's really narcissistic and self-pitying. Plus, there's just something obsessively stalker-ish about his whole infatuation with his BFF's wife. I mean, who knows how many more VHSes (heh) of The West Wing he has taped over with softly lit close-ups of Juliet.
Hanh: I'm of two minds here: Mark's confession of love via signs (I dare you NOT to get feels for "To me, you are perfect.") is so incredibly sweet and yet heartbreaking, that I can't help but want the two of them to get together. At the same time, I feel wrong for wanting that because it feels like a setup for the two of them to cuckold Peter. That's not romantic at all! There's something toxic about the two of them colluding to hoodwink him, especially by using Christmas carollers as a cover, that I feel somehow sullied by the whole affair.
Uncle Jamie and his Portuguese Housekeeper
The gist: After Jamie's (Colin Firth) woman cheats on him with his own brother, he goes on a retreat in the country to lick his wounds/write a blood-curdling thriller as therapy. His temporary housekeeper Aurelia (Lucia Moniz) only speaks Portugeuse, which he decidedly does not. Somehow, they fall for each other anyway, learn each other's languages as the ultimate proof of their love and then get engaged.
Joyce: Colin Firth can do no rom-com wrong (wromg?) and I can overlook the totally contrived, anvil-heavy way Richard Curtis showed they're MFEO -- they can't speak the same language, but they're saying sorta the same thing because love is a universal language -- because he's so friggin' charming with his stuttering and pantomiming. I can't even judge him for going so far as to ask Aurelia to marry him instead of just, you know, on a date. His Portuglish was adorable. "Just in cases" is adorable. You just can't hate Uncle Jamie. Actually you can.
Hanh: Ugh, ugh, ugh! Mr. Darcy, this is not. After loving Firth in Pride & Prejudice and Bridget Jones's Diary, I had high expectations, which were unfortunately dashed by this insipid, bumbling character Jamie, who I'll at least give credit for not making a move on the much younger Aurelia until she left his employ. And while I'd like to support the "love is the only language you need" baloney, I'm not biting when there is zero chemistry between the two of them and nothing that they have in common. This was the story line that I think suffered the most from lack of screentime because their courtship was not just underdeveloped but nonexistent.
Bad Harry and Heartbroken Emma Thompson
The gist: Married man Harry (Alan Rickman) is tempted by his new secretary Mia (Heike Makatsch) and even buys her an expensive necklace, which his wife Karen (Emma Thompson) had found in his pocket earlier and thought was for herself. But when she gets a CD instead, she realizes that the necklace must have gone to the other woman and confronts Harry, who apologizes for being a cad.
Joyce: The less said about Miss "Dark Places for Doing Dark Deeds," the better. But, alas, she did her part in the film's best story. The other plotlines delight in the weird, absurd, funny and naked, but this is the most grounded, authentic and fully realized portrayal of a relationship at a crossroads. If Emma Thompson doesn't completely shatter your heart in that scene, you are a monster. Her underrated moment is when she picks up Harry at the airport a month later -- the pain in her eyes gets me every time.
Thompson's talents are wasted in this story, which, someone needs to explain to me why it's is in a supposedly feel-good movie about how love is all around. Karen ends up in tears and only barely keeps it together to keep the marriage going. Oh, and Harry? After a few guilt pangs, he still has a loving wife and family. Where is the justice? Where is his penance? I need this guy to pay!
The Prime Minister and Plumpy
The gist: Natalie (Martine McCutcheon) is a new junior staff member to the Prime Minster (Hugh Grant). They make eyes at each other, PM David gets aw-shucks nervous around her and through a misunderstanding involving the randy President of the United States (Billy Bob Thornton), she's let go from service. No worries, though, because a Christmas card from her is all the impetus he needs to go after the girl, and the two make out at a grade-school Nativity play.
Joyce: OK, the fact that a third of these couples feature men falling for their employees is problematic, not to mention the tired running fat jokes about Natalie (and Aurelia's sister). But like with his Bridget Jones's Diary rival, I love seeing Hugh Grant in fine vintage '90s rom-com form, and his nervous energy with Martine McCutcheon is palpable. He loathed that dancing scene, but his pain is our gain. And I'm not sure anyone has provided more of a morale booster for Brits in the past 10 years than when PM David schooled President Billy Bob Thornton. (Side note: How often do you think Love Actually came up between Billy Bob and Martin Freeman when they were shooting Fargo?)
Hanh: I probably liked this story the most, but with reservations. Martine McCutcheon is so utterly adorable and spunky that it's clear why David would be smitten, and again, he at least waits until the work relationship is out of the way to pursue her. There are hallmarks of classic rom-com -- the goofy dance sequence, getting caught kissing in public -- but were all the fat jokes necessary? What is this film's obsession with people's weights? Also, I would have liked to have gotten to know Natalie more, since she's the female character who actually had the most agency (i.e. sending the Christmas card, arranging for David to watch the Nativity play backstage).
Daniel, Sam, Joanna, Claudia and the total agony of being in love
The gist: Widower Daniel (Liam Neeson) and his stepson Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) bond when Daniel helps Sam devise a plan to woo his crush Joanna (Olivia Olson), who alas is leaving for America after the Christmas talent performance.
Joyce: This story is so ridiculous, but it works so well that I don't even roll my eyes when Claudia Schiffer shows up. And it only works because of Neeson and Brodie-Sangster. I couldn't care less about Sam's puppy love with Joanna, though I do adore her rendition of "All I Want for Christmas Is You." Instead, it's Daniel and Sam's relationship that is so genuine, fun and sweet I'm pretty sure I audibly "aw"-ed when Sam calls his stepfather "Dad" instead of "Daniel" at the end. But I can't watch the movie now, especially their opening funeral scene, without thinking about Neeson's real-life tragedy.
Hanh: Even though Brodie-Sangster has moved on to bigger and better things (playing Jojen Reed on Game of Thrones), this is still one of his best roles to date. Nevertheless, what should be a sweet parent-child bonding story is overshadowed by the creepy and occasionally bizarre elements. The film really did not have to give Sam's crush the same name as his dead mom, and using Titanic -- a film in which the central couple is parted by death -- as the ultimate romantic inspiration is rather macabre. Also, Daniel's mourning for his wife dissipates pretty quickly, which hey, is just in time for him to get together with Claudia Schiffer, whom I'm surprised wasn't somehow named Joanna also. Yech!
Sarah and Karl, Our Enigmatic Chief Designer
The gist: Sarah (Laura Linney) is totes in love with co-worker Karl (Rodrigo Santoro), and after years of pining, she's about to get it on with him in her loft when the phone rings. It's her her mentally challenged brother Michael, who requires Sarah's constant reassurance, to the point that she ends up choosing him over starting a relationship with Karl.
Joyce: I know everyone doesn't want Sarah to answer the phone, but it doesn't really bother me that she chose her brother over a night (and presumably a relationship) with Karl. I don't need happy endings all the time and like Karl says, "Life is full of interruptions and complications." There's something beautifully tragic and poignant about her devotion/obligation to Michael, which anyone who's ever had to care for an ill or elderly family member can relate to. Her life and world is just so interwoven with his that she just can't extricate herself from it. But her few moments of pure bliss with Karl were pure heaven. Her stair squeal is classic, but I'm partial to the look on her face when they're slow-dancing. <heart swells>
Hanh: Yes, absolutely Sarah's love for her brother and her sacrifice is to be commended. But really, Love Actually, couldn't you have given me this one?! I don't need everything to be tied up in a happy rom-com bow every time, but when this is the only story line told primarily from the female point of view (among a slew of male-centric oddities), I'd like some satisfaction, especially after seeing how the very well-chiseled Karl is actually pretty damn understanding of Sarah's situation. As with parents, sometimes it's important to actually put yourself first in order to be better equipped to care for others.
Colin, God of Sex, and the American Girls
The gist: Stuck-up British girls don't fancy Colin (Kris Marshall), but that's OK because he has a plan to go to America, where the women will get all buttery in the nether-regions when they hear his English accent. His plan works so well that he has a ménage-a-cinq with some hot Yanks and even returns to England with two of them on his arm.
Joyce: This story line is perfect. Like, stupidly perfect. Any other movie would totally crush Colin's American sex dreams once he arrives to that fantastic place called Wisconsin. But the movie just wonderfully, cheekily goes with it. Plus: This is always how I'll remember January Jones.
Hanh: Worst. Plot. Ever. This has nothing to do with love in any form, and Colin was unlikable. That he gets every deluded wish granted and treats willing women as sex objects makes me think that the movie's lurking Christmas angel Rufus (Rowan Atkinson) used the bulk of his magic on this Christmas miracle.
John and Just Judy
The gist: Two stand-ins (Martin Freeman, Joanna Page) working on the most elaborately produced porno get naked, commiserate over the morning commute and eventually start dating.
Joyce: They're comfortable naked, but they're uncomfortable talking to each other! Get it? Out of all the couples, I kind of hope these two crazy kids make it. Their traffic small talk whilst nipple-massaging never gets old for me. Junction 13 is murder.
Hanh: I'm with Joyce on this one. Oddly enough, I had fewer problems with this story even though it's a bit too goofy to be really romantic. But hey, porn stand-ins need love too, I guess?
What do you think of Love Actually? Share your thoughts in the comments below!