It’s very easy – and even fashionable – to hate on 2003 Christmas mega-hit Love Actually. Bestselling author Lindy West called her book of film criticism Shit, Actually, to hammer home how she feels about Richard Curtis’s directorial debut. This august organ's official review calls it ‘shameless yuletide schmaltz’ – and far worse (you should read the whole thing, it’s deliciously vicious).
And yet. Like Mariah Carey, Love Actually has become as necessary to Christmas as tinsel or candy canes. The multiplot format spawned a handful of holiday-themed, star-stuffed imitators, from Valentine's Day to New Year's Eve to Mother's Day. But Love Actually was the original and easily the best, and much like Christmas itself, it has a special mix of absurdity, sincerity and heart that have cemented it in the Christmas movie canon.
West first sharpened her holly red pitchfork for Love Actually in a 2013 article in Jezebel. She goes through the film scene by scene, tearing it to shreds on points of credibility, writing, giant plot holes and the fact that none of the female characters talk, except Emma Thompson, who is roundly punished for the cinematic crime of having a personality.
I get it. I do. There are a thousand problems with the film, from everyone fat-shaming Martine McCutcheon to Colin Firth and Lúcia Moniz falling in love without ever speaking a single word to each other. And Kris Marshall's entire ‘go to America to find women to sleep with’ is, yeah, problematic. And then some.
In many ways, though, Love Actually isn’t a 2003 film, owing much of its appeal to movies decades earlier. It relies on the goodwill of the romantic comedies from the 1960s through the 1990s, functioning in part as a best-of reel for romantic tropes in dozens of earlier films. You like running through the airport to get the girl? Love Actually does it twice. Declarations of love, maybe with a boombox involved? Here it is with signs (starting a trend of its own, with the flipping-signs trope now used in a hundred thousand Facebook videos). A big, show-stopping song? Check. A public spectacle declaration of love? Here ya go. You can argue that the film doesn't earn those moments, with each set of characters only having a few scenes in which to establish their relationship. But I think that shorthand works particularly in a Christmas movie, because that is how Christmas itself works.
Bringing a tree into your house doesn't make sense either. Wrapping gifts in colourful paper is unnecessary. Turkey isn't actually very good – if it were, we would eat it the rest of the year. But all of these things are callbacks to every Christmas in your life, as well as every Christmas you've ever seen in TV or movies. Christmas itself plays on nostalgia, on ritual, on the heart-tugging moments that lit up Christmasses in your own past or those you've seen depicted. That's why Love Actually works, not because it, in itself, makes a lot of sense or breaks new ground. It works because it doesn't. Instead of trying new things, it reminds you of a hundred other things you loved. It is a perfectly proportioned dose of nostalgia, and isn't that, at its heart what Christmas itself is?