After reading a spate of essays about Love, Actually (“Loathe, Actually,” “The Six Cinematic Crimes of ‘Love Actually,’” “Love Actually Is the Least Romantic Film of All Time“) I watched the movie and realized that none of the writers nail what started bothering me halfway through. It isn’t the gender politics of the movie, which are primarily disliked for the usual reason: people in reality behave differently than writers of essays and feminists would like them to behave. It’s because the characters in Love Actually are stuck at age 15.
The movie’s plot is essentially a series of attraction deferments: someone feels attraction, often quite strongly, and then doesn’t act on it. Instead of going up and saying, “Let’s get a drink later” or “let’s see a movie,” they blush and stutter and wonder. One character says, “takes me ages to get the courage up” to even talk to the other one. That’s a real problem I had when I was, say, 15, and would respond to attraction by hiding.
Why do teenagers do this? They’re stuck in a nasty social situation: high school. They’re inexperienced idiots. That described me fairly well.* There also might be good evolutionary reasons to avoid making romantic moves unlikely to be requited: for most of human history, humans lived in relatively small bands, and making a romantic move was probably a potentially dangerous and life-changing experience. Today, it’s relatively minor, and if one person says no you just move on to the next one. Humiliation is minor and generally forgotten by everyone except the person turned down. We live in a world so different than our ancestral environment that it’s hard to remember how poorly adapted we are to modern life.
The above paragraph might be wrong—it’s a just-so story, and I’m not even sure how to test these ideas—but it is plausible. Still, most of us realize what’s effective in modern life and start doing that as we get older, rather than persisting in endless crushes. In many domains a “no” is actually better than not knowing, or a “maybe,” since a “no” means that you can go on to find someone who says “yes.” Getting to “no” has value in itself.
In life most of us realize that missed opportunities just sort of suck—so when they arise, you seize them. Instead, the characters in Love, Actually pointlessly defer them; in real life, the opposing party often comes up with a boyfriend or girlfriend in the interim. But in movie-land, it all works out, and everyone gets laid. The fellow with the hot Portuguese flatmate should’ve tried speaking the language of love while he was there.
One definition of stupidity is the failure to learn from experience. But the experiences of the characters in the movie are so limited that there isn’t enough screen time for the ups and downs more typical of romantic comedies. All the characters, regardless of their age, also seem to have very little life experiences. The 50-year-olds are mentally 16, but with wrinkles. They lack the forthrightness uncommon in teens but fairly common by… let me make up a number and say 24.
Love Actually isn’t a terrible movie—I laughed, sometimes, and frequently when the exasperated, washed-up singer had to do his hilarious bit—but I can’t see wanting to watch it again. It was also British, which meant there were more nude scenes than an equivalent American movie would have, and those are always welcome. I also get that its characters are, if not caricatures, then at least “broadly drawn.”
* Some people would argue that it still does describe me.