Love Realistically

[Originally posted on LJ and then in the Fletcher Ledger]

This fall as we rode the 9 uptown from the NY Fed site visit to the Microfinance panel, Roberto looked out onto the subway platform at a Dharma & Greg poster and said wistfully of Jenna Elfman, “She is my impossible love.”

That got me thinking about my impossible love: actor Colin Firth. The passionate intelligence. The reserve that gives way to slow-burning charisma and a boyish smile to die for. The agonized dive into the ancestral pond in the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice… Enough, I’ll spare the Fletcher community and say simply that last November I hightailed it down to Harvard Square with Huria and Das to see Colin’s latest film, Love Actually.

Unfortunately he’s not in it as much as I would have liked, because it’s an ensemble piece starring a whole passel of Anglo-American A-listers including Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Laura Linney, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley, and one Hugh Grant as a wholly unbelievable Prime Minister who falls for his tea lady (Martine McCutcheon of EastEnders). There are also some great cameos by Rowan “Mr. Bean” Atkinson, Denise Richards and – especially – Billy Bob Thornton, who raised a laugh from the entire theater upon his first perfect appearance.

Naturally, Love Actually is about love, with ten or so loosely intertwined vignettes. The advances of a sexy receptionist come between a middle-aged husband and wife. A couple fall in love while working as stand-ins in a hardcore porn film. A grieving widower encourages his young stepson to go after his unattainable classmate. And so forth. All are in some way driven by the irresistible tension of unspoken feeling.

Off the top of my head, I can think of two modern-day screenwriters whose names bring their particular filmic worldview instantly to mind. One is Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation and Being John Malkovich). The other is the director of Love Actually, Richard Curtis, whose past films Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and (as producer) Bridget Jones’s Diary are known for their lightly poignant (or manipulative, detractors say) romances and a Platonically clean and candy-colored view of London. It’s the British analogue to the Manhattan of a Meg Ryan movie: all red phone booths, hidden gardens, quirky markets and cosy caramelized onion dinner parties. I love it unashamedly, and my expectations were high.

Well – I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. The film’s very funny, and Huria and I got to enjoy five (5) very attractive male actors. But the sheer number of mini-plots means that most of the storylines don’t have room to develop, and so you’re not quite sure why you should care that these people finally did or didn’t get together. When Harry Met Sally or Pride and Prejudice work so well because it just takes so bloody long for the protagonists to get it on, during which time you come to believe that they really have fallen in love, warts ‘n’ all. My beloved Colin does his best as a heartbroken English novelist who falls in love with a young Portuguese woman before they are ever able to understand each other’s language, but it’s hard to root for them when they’re competing for attention with sixteen other lovers.

In the end the most moving stories were those that stuck firmly in the realm of the believable. It really is the probable, not the impossible, love that satisfies. Just ask Roberto, who married his real-life sweetheart over winter break.