Why ‘Love Actually’ is the perfect modern Christmas movie

Updated December 13, 2018 - 3:36 pm

“Love Actually” turned 15 this holiday season.

To put that in perspective, that’s two years younger than Keira Knightley was when she filmed “Love Actually.”

Let that sink in for a moment.

The movie isn’t aging nearly as well as the actress, though. Take Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), for example. The multiple references to how fat the relatively underfed prime minister’s assistant is — she’s “the chubby girl,” has “thighs the size of big tree trunks,” and her father refers to her as “Plumpy” — were always curious. In 2018, however, they’re downright troubling.

Still, “Love Actually” just may be the quintessential modern Christmas movie.

Here, in celebration of its 15th anniversary, are 15 reasons why:

The cast

It’s a veritable murderers’ row of acting talent with established thespians Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant, Laura Linney, Colin Firth and Liam Neeson, back when he still made movies without gunplay, alongside up-and-comers Keira Knightley, “Sherlock’s” Martin Freeman, “The Walking Dead’s” Andrew Lincoln and “12 Years a Slave” Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor.

It’s the romantic comedy for people who hate romantic comedies — and romance in general.

Neeson’s Daniel is recently widowed. Firth’s Jamie returns from a funeral to discover his girlfriend has been sleeping with his brother. Thompson’s Karen learns her husband has been having an affair. And Linney’s Sarah seems destined to remain unloved thanks to her devotion to her hospitalized brother.

The setting

There’s nothing quite like Christmastime in London. Tyler Perry could slap together “Madea’s Christmastime in London” and I’d watch it. Willingly. Every year.

Billy Mack

From his cheeky irreverence to his message to young viewers — “Don’t buy drugs. Become a pop star and they give you them for free.” — everything about Bill Nighy’s portrayal of “The Bad Granddad of Rock ’N’ Roll” is note-perfect.

Christmas No. 1

Billy’s comeback quest clued the rest of the world in to the wackiness of the fierce campaign to have England’s most popular song each holiday week. Oddsmakers even take wagers on who’ll take home the title, surely the only one that’s ever been held by both Benny Hill and Bob the Builder.

The soundtrack

“Love Actually” turns Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” into the bleakest Christmas carol outside of “The Christmas Shoes.” For actual holiday songs, though, it’s tough to beat Billy Mack’s “Christmas Is All Around,” Otis Redding’s “White Christmas” and that gobsmacking cover of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” by young co-star Olivia Olson.

Hugh Grant’s mad dance skills

Gary Oldman is the reigning Oscar winner for his portrayal of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Grant, though, will just have to settle for near-universal acclaim for his epic hip-swiveling throughout 10 Downing Street, set to The Pointer Sisters’ “Jump (For My Love),” as the mononymous prime minister, David.

That insane Martin Freeman storyline

Movie stand-ins Jack (Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page, “Gavin & Stacey”) chat about the mundanity of daily life — “Junction 13 is just murder, isn’t it? Total gridlock this morning.” — while simulating increasingly awkward sex acts in various states of undress. If you’ve only seen “Love Actually” on traditional, family-friendly TV channels, you may be shocked to learn Freeman is in the movie.

No one plays Christmas bad guys like Alan Rickman

While Rickman’s turn as Hans Gruber in “Die Hard” is the definitive Yuletide villain, his Harry, the head of the design agency in “Love Actually,” is just gross. Risking your 13-year marriage to Thompson’s Karen over some fling with that strumpet Mia? The woman wears devil horns to a Christmas party, for cryin’ out loud.

Emma Thompson’s no saint, either

“Love Actually” is often criticized for being too saccharine, although Karen is anything but sweet. She can’t get off the phone fast enough when Neeson’s Daniel calls seeking support from seemingly his only friend. “It doesn’t mean that I’m not terribly concerned that your wife just died,” she offers in consolation. Karen also won’t win mother of the year anytime soon, as she later tells Daniel, “My horrid son Bernard stays in his room all the time. Thank goodness.”

That Nativity play

Who knew lobsters, an octopus, some penguins and a whale attended the birth of Christ, sang Perry Como’s “Catch a Falling Star” and hung out with Spider-Man?

Everyone just ignores the fact that Andrew Lincoln is a straight-up creeper

It’s bad enough that Lincoln’s Mark showed up on Christmas Eve to declare his love for Juliet (Keira Knightley), who just married his best friend, Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Before that, he was busted for filming their wedding, omitting any footage of Peter and focusing solely on extreme close-ups of Juliet. Had “Love Actually” gone a different way, that video would have been Exhibit A at Mark’s eventual trial.

‘Christmas Uncovered’

David Bellemere’s photographs of nude models — mostly obscured by Santa hats, bows and snowflakes — are enough to make schoolgirls giggle during their trip to Mark’s art gallery. But you should see the scene the way it plays on basic cable, where someone has digitally added red briefs to the backsides of the four previously bare-buttocked men.

Holiday magic

Setting aside the fact that Rowan Atkinson’s overly enthusiastic gift-wrapper was intended to be an angel, “Love Actually” suggests anything is possible at Christmas — even learning to play the drums in two weeks or scampering throughout Heathrow, easily eluding airport security and the rush of passengers, on Christmas Eve.

‘A fantastic place called Wisconsin’

Few things have shown Milwaukee in a better light than the scenes in which Colin Frissell (Kris Marshall), who has to journey across the Atlantic to find a date, hails a cab from the airport, asks to be dropped off at “an average American bar” and ends up being taken in by three preposterously stunning ladies, including a fur-coat-and-spandex-wearing January Jones. Adding to the magic of “Love Actually,” that just may be the only likable character the future Betty Draper has ever played.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence @reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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