Can a movie be great but not good?

For an inglorious year (1978-79) I reviewed films for what was then the St. Petersburg Times. My main problem as a film critic was that I liked everything. I gushed and viewers shook their heads.

Since then, I don’t trust my judgment anymore, especially on films where there’s disagreement. In the spirit of the season, think of the unlikely Christmas classic, Love Actually. The film is so thoroughly enjoyed and so well planned that ABC recently dedicated an hour to its 20th anniversary. (It came out in November 2003.)

During my year eating popcorn, I met two famous film critics, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. For years, the Chicago writers offered hard-hitting opinions on public television with a simple rating system. If the film was good, it got two thumbs up; if it was bad, two thumbs down. If they disagreed, a thumbs up, a thumbs 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 the past two decades that you’ll find some scenes and characters dated or problematic.

thumbs up

Here are my reasons why Love Actually deserves a thumbs up:

It begins with the ambitious vision of writer-director Richard Curtis. It begins a month before Christmas and follows 10 British couples through the joys and throes of love. Love shows itself in its diversity, from self-sacrificing to superficial, from romantic to pathetic.

Featuring some of England’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 stepfather whose wife just died); from the late Alan Rickman (a reluctant cheating husband) to Emma Thompson (the woman he betrays).

The plot and complications build to a climax at Christmas, when a series of plots converge at a school Christmas contest, a surprise marriage proposal at a cafe in the south of France, and an airport departure terminal.

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For many, the emotional climax comes when Thompson spots a Christmas present and peeks inside to see a gold necklace. She is excited. When she unpacks it on Christmas Eve, it turns out not to be a chain, but a Joni Mitchell album. She realizes that the jewelry was for another woman. She retreats to the bedroom. What follows is an incredible moment of wordless action as Thompson turns shock and disappointment into betrayal and despair. As Mitchell sings “Both Sides Now,” she pulls herself together for the good of the kids.

The emotional moves from elation to pathos are supported by one of my favorite musical scores, mixing well-known love ballads with soulful new ones. Artists include Kelly Clarkson, Maroon 5, Norah Jones, Wyclef Jean, Eva Cassidy, The Pointer Sisters, Joni Mitchell and Otis Redding. In the most dramatic scenes, the audience is swept away by soaring orchestrations that lift the spirits and drive the action forward.

thumbs down

If that represents the best, here’s proof that the flick deserves a thumbs-down, an opinion shared by about a third of the horde I’ve consulted on Facebook.

It starts with the perverse amount of fat shame besmirching characterizations, from the rock star’s manager, who is consistently described as “chubby,” to the prime minister’s curvy young love interest, whose father calls her “plump,” to Firth’s love interest’s sister , whose father refers to her as “Miss Dunkin’ Donuts”. Not everyone is shaped like Keira Knightley.

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

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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 a Midwestern town are gorgeous, in love, sleeping naked in the same bed and finding guys with British accents charming.

The most heartbreaking sequence involves Laura Linney, who has had a long-standing crush on a co-worker. Their eager lovemaking is interrupted by a call from Linney’s brother, who is suffering from paranoia. He reveals a strange deception. Her love for her brother becomes unnecessarily self-sacrificing.

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

If that sequence had been eliminated – and it is regularly cut for television – it would have left room for another that would have added a missing ingredient to the narrative. Unfortunately, all of the characters in the film are straight. As if there were no gay people in London! The Independent newspaper in England noted that a “very emotional story about an elderly lesbian couple … ended up on the cutting room floor”.

Can it be great but not good?

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

A sign of a film’s greatness is the way its popularity endures over the decades, the way certain characters become iconic, the way lines from the film flow into common language and family history. You don’t want to watch “Love Actually” sitting next to me. I memorized the script and spoiler lines like “I hate Uncle Jamie!” and “Just in Case” and “OK, Dad. Let’s do this. Let’s kick the love out of us.”

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Given the existential crises of recent years, it may be helpful to remember that Love Actually was filmed immediately after 9/11, a fact referenced in Hugh Grant’s opening narration, a scene set at the airport plays:

“Whenever I get sad about the state of the world, I think of the arrival gate at Heathrow Airport. Popular opinion is beginning to say that we live in a world of hate and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. It’s often not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there—fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. As far as I know, when the planes hit the Twin Towers, none of the calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I have a secret feeling you’ll find that love is indeed everywhere.”

Families love certain films, repeating lines of common language and imitating funny or interesting moments. The Clarks went a little further. An early scene shows Knightley and Chiwetel Ejiofor marrying. The best man surprises the couple with an unbelievably hidden orchestra that performs the Beatles song “All You Need Is Love”. When our daughter Lauren got married, not only did we perform this 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 isn’t all you need. But it actually helps.

(Now it’s your turn. If you’ve seen the film and have an opinion, send it in. Two thumbs up? Two thumbs down? One thumbs up, one thumbs down?)

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