What killed the romcom? It was Love, Actually | Hadley Freeman

Richard Curtis’s sexist, saccharine turkey is being recooked at a time when TV romance is far superior. May it teach filmmakers to aim higher

It’s Comic Relief time, again, and truly, who could fail to wish it well? All that fundraising, all that cheer – as multiple celebrities will surely inform us on the night, this is Britain at its best. Except there’s a problem this year, and it comes in an oppressively heart-shaped form. The centrepiece of the night is a 10-minute sequel to the 2003 romcom to end all romcoms, Love, Actually.

Let’s be fair: maybe it won’t make me want to carve my eyes out with a spoon. Heck, stranger things have happened in the past 365 days. But, for charity though it may be, my hopes are not high and my spoon is at the ready because Love, Actually is – officially, legally, morally and scientifically – the worst film ever made.

Nothing – not Donald Trump, not Brexit – makes me feel more alienated from my fellow countrymen, both American and British, than knowing how popular this movie still is. My best friend and I went to see it on the day it opened, excited as babes on Christmas Day. We loved Notting Hill, and we adored Four Weddings and a Funeral, and sure, they were basically odes to the Oxbridge-educated, but they had charm and clever scripts. And those movies only had one plot line – this new one had nine! That meant it would be nine times as awesome, right? Wrong. We emerged from the cinema with faces frozen like Munch’s Scream, and silently went our separate ways. We called each other later to check in on one another, like victims of a terrible disaster.

Illustration by Andrzej Krauze
‘The majority of Love, Actually involves men stalking women or sexually harassing their female subordinates in the workplace.’ Illustration: Andrzej Krauze

What’s wrong with Love, Actually, you ask? For a start, the majority of the rom involves men stalking women (Andrew Lincoln) or sexually harassing their female subordinates in the workplace (Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Alan Rickman). Most women in the movie are emphatically socially or professionally inferior to the men around them, and all are hopelessly passive, waiting for a suitor to pursue her in an airport or turn up like a deranged intruder on her front steps – with one exception.

Laura Linney’s character is allowed to have a successful career, but she has a brother so she’s not allowed to have a boyfriend because, apparently, men can’t bear for their woman to have another man in their life, even a sibling. And of course there’s a plotline about how all American women are dying to sleep with nerdy Englishmen, because that’s a leitmotif in Richard Curtis’s films.

But instead of that English man being Grant, it’s Kris Marshall. Kris Marshall! And he gets three American women! On behalf of American women everywhere I must say this is unacceptable. Oh, and we haven’t even talked about how Firth and his maid, played by Lúcia Moniz, don’t even speak the same language, but that doesn’t stop her delightedly accepting his marriage proposal. Do you want me to go on? Because I could do this all day.

Look, I love romcoms. We’ve already established my fondness for Four Weddings and Notting Hill, a sackable offence at the Guardian. Then there’s Romancing the Stone, Moonstruck, Annie Hall, How To Marry a Millionaire – these are films that have got me through many a blue or bored day. So I have no problem with cheesiness, implausible plots or retrograde sexual politics, as long as the script is good. But the script is bad in Love, Actually. So bad. Not one person behaves like a recognisable human being, except for Saint Emma Thompson, who provides the one good scene in the film (when she discovers her husband is cheating on her, because that’s what happens to women over 40. Merry Christmas, ladies).

My theory, which I’ve been honing now for 14 years, is that Love, Actually killed the romcom. Much has been written about the death of this genre in Hollywood, with fingers pointing at Kate Hudson, Katherine Heigl, Gerard Butler and Matthew McConaughey, whose increasingly deranged movies in the 2000s made love seem as appealing as a root canal. But it was Love, Actually that really showed how debased the form had become, with its implausible plots and insulting depictions of women – and men, but mainly women. A similar drop in quality can be seen in Nora Ephron’s romcoms, from the peerless When Harry Met Sally to the stalker-y Sleepless in Seattle to the even more stalker-y You’ve Got Mail. But Ephron at her laziest is a billion times more palatable than Curtis at his most saccharine.

Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan in Catastrophe.
Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan in Catastrophe. Photograph: Mark Johnson/Channel 4

And now Love, Actually is back, kinda, and what’s finally funny about it is how out of step it feels today. Because the romcom didn’t die, it evolved into something far more cynical. TV shows such as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and You’re the Worst laugh in the face of the idea of happily ever after, while Aziz Ansari’s Master of None and Sharon Horgan’s Catastrophe are more interested in what comes after the romance. These are the modern versions of the romcom and the idea that anyone would believe everything will be all right with that woman who just married her employer despite not speaking his language feels so foreign it is downright Martian.

Sure, I hope the sequel raises plenty of money. But I also hope that maybe watching it will remind people just how hateful that movie always was, and maybe inspire someone to write the next great British romcom, or at least one that doesn’t suggest the best a woman can hope for is being felt up by her boss. My bar is not high, folks.


Hadley Freeman

The GuardianTramp

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