‘Love Actually,’ 20 years later: Can a movie be great, but not good?

There are problematic aspects, certainly, but here’s why it’s still a favorite.
Hugh Grant, left, and Martine McCutcheon in "Love Actually."
Hugh Grant, left, and Martine McCutcheon in "Love Actually." [ WWW.ALBUM-ONLINE.COM | ZUMA PRESS ]
Published Dec. 8, 2022|Updated Dec. 8, 2022

For one inglorious year (1978-79), I reviewed movies for the then St. Petersburg Times. My main problem as a movie critic was that I liked everything. I’d rave, and viewers would shake their heads.

Since then, I don’t trust my judgment, especially on movies where there is a divergence of opinion. In the spirit of the season, consider that unlikely Christmas classic, “Love Actually.” The movie is so roundly enjoyed and so soundly panned that ABC recently devoted an hour to its 20th anniversary. (It came out in November 2003.)

During my year of eating popcorn, I got to meet two famous movie critics, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. For years, the Chicago writers offered sharp opinions on public television, with a simple rating system. If the movie was good, it got two thumbs up; if it was bad, two thumbs down. When they disagreed, one thumb up, one thumb down.

If you haven’t seen “Love Actually,” I encourage you to do so. Although the themes of love are meant to seem universal, so much has changed in the culture over two decades that you will find some scenes and characters out of date or problematic.

Thumbs up

Here are my reasons “Love Actually” deserves a thumbs up:

It begins with the ambitious vision of writer and director Richard Curtis. Starting a month before Christmas, he follows 10 British couples through the joys and agonies of love. The loves are displayed in their variety, from sacrificial to superficial, from romantic to pathetic.

On display are some of the United Kingdom’s finest actors, from Hugh Grant (the new dancing prime minister) to Bill Nighy (an aging rock star); from Colin Firth (a struggling writer) to Liam Neeson (a stepdad whose wife has just died); from the late Alan Rickman (a reluctant cheating husband) to Emma Thompson (the wife he betrays).

The action and complications build toward a climax at Christmas, when a number of plots converge at a school Christmas pageant, at a surprise marriage proposal at a cafe in the south of France, and at an airport departure terminal.

For many, the emotional high point is a scene in which Thompson spots a Christmas gift and peeks inside to see a gold necklace. She is delighted. When she unwraps it on Christmas Eve, it turns out to be not a necklace, but a Joni Mitchell album. She realizes the jewelry was for another woman. She retreats to the bedroom. What follows is an incredible moment of wordless acting in which Thompson turns shock and disappointment into betrayal and despair. With Mitchell singing “Both Sides Now,” she pulls herself together for the sake of the children.

The emotional movements from high spirits to pathos are supported by one of my favorite musical scores, mixing familiar love ballads with soulful news ones. Artists include Kelly Clarkson, Maroon 5, Norah Jones, Wyclef Jean, Eva Cassidy, The Pointer Sisters, Joni Mitchell and Otis Redding. In the most climactic scenes, the audience is washed over by soaring orchestrations, which lift the spirits and propel the action.

Thumbs down

If that represents the best, here is the evidence that the flick deserves a thumbs down, an opinion shared by about a third of the horde I have consulted on Facebook.

It begins with the perverse amount of fat shaming that stains characterizations, from the rock star’s manager, who is described throughout as “chubby,” to the prime minister’s curvy young love interest, whose father calls her “plumpy,” to the sister of Firth’s love interest, whose father puts her down as “Miss Dunkin’ Donuts.” Not everyone is shaped like Keira Knightley.

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Consider the complaint that a number of key love relationships involve an inequality in which a powerful man goes after a woman of lower status: a prime minister falls for a caterer, an office manager for a secretary, an author for a housekeeper and waitress.

Then there is a problem in the portrayal of Americans. Our president (played by Billy Bob Thornton) turns out to be a bully and a pig. Oh, and all the young women in one Midwestern city are gorgeous, amorous, sleep in the nude in the same bed and find guys with British accents charming.

The most heartbreaking sequence involves Laura Linney, who has a longtime crush on a co-worker. Their eager lovemaking is interrupted by a phone call from Linney’s brother, who suffers from paranoia. He reveals some strange delusion. Her love for her brother becomes needlessly sacrificial.

And finally, there is perhaps the worst subplot in rom-com history involving two characters named John and Judy. Never was there a greater waste of talent or the inclusion of scenes that ruin a family movie. The characters meet in a movie studio. They are naked body doubles for the stars of what looks like a soft-core film.

If this sequence had been eliminated — and it is cut regularly for television — it would have left room for another that could have added a missing ingredient to the narrative. Sadly, all the characters in the movie are straight. As if there were no gay people in London! The Independent newspaper in England noted that a “highly emotional storyline about an older lesbian couple… ended up on the cutting room floor.”

Can it be great, but not good?

This thumbs up/thumbs down inventory leads me back to a theory I have held for a long time about popular movies. Some movies can be great, but not good. “Star Wars” is a great movie, but not a good one. “Animal House,” too. Maybe “Gone With the Wind.”

A sign of a movie’s greatness is the way its popularity lasts over decades, the way certain characters become icons, the way that lines from the movie migrate into common speech and family lore. You don’t want to watch “Love Actually” sitting next to me. I have memorized the screenplay and blurt spoiler lines such as “I hate Uncle Jamie!” and “Just in cases” and “OK, Dad. Let’s do it. Let’s go get the s--t kicked out of us by love.”

Given the existential crises of recent years, it may be helpful to remember that “Love Actually” was made in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a fact noted in the opening narration by Hugh Grant, a scene set at the airport:

“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion is starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there — fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge — they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.”

Families embrace certain movies, echoing lines in common speech, imitating funny or interesting moments. The Clarks went a little farther. An early scene shows the wedding of Knightley and Chiwetel Ejiofor. The best man surprises the couple with an implausibly hidden orchestra who perform the Beatles song “All You Need Is Love.” When our daughter Lauren got married, not only did we perform that song, but everyone in attendance was given a kazoo to play the instrumental line. “All you need is love… Ta, da, da, da, da.”

In real life, love is not all you need. But it helps — actually.

(Your turn now. If you have seen the film and have an opinion, send it along. Two thumbs up? Two thumbs down? One thumb up, one thumb down?)