Remember when denim ball caps were a thing? Remember when boy bands had frosted tips? When Kelly Clarkson was everywhere and Hollywood was putting out weird impressions of George W. Bush for some kind of safe commentary?
Welcome back to the era of 2003's Love Actually. We're talking Hugh Grant dancing around 10 Downing Street and not doing a proper job of being the UK's Prime Minister; Bill Nighy's appearance that we call a "performance" for some reason (maybe it's brilliant, I can't tell); Andrew Lincoln stalking Keira Knightley—and Bilbo Baggins himself, Martin Freeman, doing a softcore porno and falling in love. It's a wonderful Christmastime in Brittania.
Love Actually's numerous plot threads come together with a series of romantic grand gestures. Grant's character goes door-to-door, searching for his assistant so he can dramatically reveal his feelings. Colin Firth gets so turned on by a Portuguese housekeeper that he learns her language and leads a massive crowd to watch him pitch woo. Some impossibly cute kid violates national security by sprinting through an airport gate to profess his love while his stepdad Liam Neeson goads him on. It's all mostly weird.
This isn't meant to pointlessly knock the UK's contribution to the Christmas cinematic canon. In the States, we're cursed with never-ending Elf and Christmas Story reruns, and we've done this to ourselves, really, perhaps as punishment for society's sins. Yet, there's a broader conversation surrounding what such films teach us and a terrifyingly questionable portrayal of what it means to fall in love, to have love and to give love.
Love Actually has funny moments. It's even sweet now and again—as long as you're sticking strictly to the heteronormative or can get down with the idea of a poor person being "saved" by a rich person. It's like classic Hollywood, right? My Fair Lady, maybe? Love Actually didn't invent the idea of the grand romantic moment, but it's a culmination of its pathos—a not-so-subtle reminder that unless special things happen to you, you probably aren't very special. Oh, also, the Laura Linney bits wherein she graciously visits her institutionalized brother feel weird and reductive when it comes to mental illness, but her stint on the final season of Frasier proves what I'm talking about—straight people gonna straight, and their love is creepy and boring.
And it's all some massive and never-ending international trend that drives the bus. Bigger is better, even in love, right? It's in ads wherein a man surprises his wife with a diamond necklace—or a Peloton—or the return of a long-lost family member—just in time for the holidays. It's the shock (and too-public) proposal in front of Disney World's Cinderella Castle, on the sports jumbo-tron in front of tens of thousands of spectators or an American high school culture obsessed with grandiose promoposals. Isn't going the extra mile proof of concept? Proof of love? The intricate, the bombastic, the airport-sprinting training we receive from big films should probably elicit the same response from everyone: Nice story, better if true.
Point is, such films have whittled away at us for years, and romance spawned by pop culture is a sport or shock-and-awe campaign. Some of us tried to bring that bigness into our homes in 2020, but events outside of ourselves loomed larger. For the sake of public safety, we have to be smaller, and we need to learn how to bring down expectations of big romance.
It's pathetic it took me a global pandemic to realize this. When you're a film fanatic, you delude yourself into thinking you're watching above the fray.
"I can watch something dumb, but it's because I'm smart," I say to myself.
Still, somewhere deep in my subconscious, a voice was telling me to hope for the unexpected. Through movies like Love Actually, I mistook love as big bucks and big effort. Being unique or singled out for special treatment is a good feeling, and we want to feel that from the world, but the loneliness of the past year came with an obvious but invaluable lesson: We're not big, and most of us don't get special treatment. Last year hit hard with the idea that our suffering doesn't have a rescue at the end. When the pandemic struck, we lost the possibility of the big romantic moment. Losing the possibility is hard.
Ironically, watching Love Actually last year was the wake-up I needed—it reminded me of everything I didn't need. I'd been convincing myself since I needed a "movie character moment" to be valuable to the world and even to myself. I was lonely in waiting for the big romantic moment, though. I turned down professional and personal opportunities because I was sure my big moment was on the horizon. I think many others have done the same.
But someplace between screenings of rom-coms and rom-drams and even the odd horror film and documentary, the past 12 months taught me something important: Love can and sometimes must be found in silence, in survival, on the couch while furiously reloading the unemployment website over and over. Love, it turns out, -actually prospers in quiet rooms.