Friday, November 30, 2007

English Aphrodisiacs

'Tis the season for all sorts of indulgences. I love the holidays because even though you still have to go through the daily grind, there's some latitude that's ascribed to "good cheer" that's somewhat akin to being on vacation. Meaning, you can get away with all kinds of shit. For example, in December, you can pretty much drink freely during the day and it's not frowned upon. As long as you don't slosh your martini around and slur your words and don't call it drinking. You have to frame the whole enterprise in seasonal traditions and couch it in fancy language. For example, pop a mini candy cane in your cocktail, put on a mistletoe hat and say you're "enjoying libations!" If you bother with that, then it's not considered sick or problematic, it's considered festive.

Also among these indulgences is repeated viewing of otherwise cloying holiday movies. So over the next few weeks, I'm gonna tell you about some of my favorites. As you can guess, I love movies. I go to the movies once a week. And really, it's not that hard to please me, I think perhaps because I have a strong duality in my taste. Which is to say I'm one of those gross cliches who's outwardly, unforgivably hardassed and crass while inside I'm a sap-loving hopeless romantic with a penchant for the sentimental. What that means is that I'm just as happy watching Goodfellas as Moonstruck.

So, today, in a stunning display of candor and poor taste that's also revealing my romanticism, I wanna tell you about the mother-lode of misty-eyed holiday schmaltz, Love Actually.

This is the directorial debut from the undisputed king of British rom-com and Hugh Grant's top pimp, Richard Curtis. This movie even had the welly to tag itself as the "ultimate romantic comedy." And that's not for nothing. It features nine interconnected romances that blossom during the holiday season, and it boasts a cast that perhaps only the Ocean's franchise can rival.

When I first saw this flick, in the theatre, I hated it. It came off as contrived and cluttered instead of clever and charming. Mostly, it was just too fucking long. Rom-coms have a certain cadence, and by stuffing so much into this one, it ran over two hours. There were highlights, namely Bill Nighy's every second onscreen. But as a whole, it felt disjointed and heavy-handed, and I felt manipulated.

It was precisely because of Bill Nighy's delightfully roguish performance that I bothered to flick this on again when it replayed on cable. And when I did, from the comfort of my own home, I watched a completely different movie and this time was delighted by it.

This isn't exactly unusual -- to have different reactions to a movie based on the venue. Though I love the movie theater, I prefer the flicks to be big and loud and perhaps even bloody when they're on the big screen. Or, if they're smaller, intimate movies, I like them shorter. Also, I suspect, when I'm in public, I throw up my defenses and I'm simply not as susceptible to charm. But at home, I can wallow in my own disgusting marshmallow core without as much shame. Also, at home, I can fix one (or four) of those candy-cane infused cocktails (vodka and peppermint schnapps with a splash of Godiva liqueur work really well) to really settle in and feel comfortable with longer run times.

Whatever the reason, at home, though this movie is still completely over-the-top and masterfully manipulative, I absolutely love it. Nighy is still the perfect infusion of hilarity in the mix, but the more subtle good-natured humor of the rest of the cast blossomed for me. Hugh Grant always has been a charming cad, but here he's such a stand-up good guy that I guess it took a second viewing to see his mischief bubble to the surface in his scenes with the adorable Martine McCutcheon. Colin Firth? Please. Don't even make me try to enumerate the ways he can woo.

Emma Thompson has a scene that could break your heart, and Laura Linney simply is the long-suffering girl with the hopeless crush who nearly bursts with joy when she gets somewhere. Rodrigo Santoro shirtless. And pantsless. (BTW, check him out in 300 where he wears gold body paint, lots of heavy metal jewelry and not much else.) Keira Knightley, fuck her spindly ass, you know? But that's the beauty of the movie. Where it all seemed to go too fast the first time, it just means she's off the screen just as quickly the next time around so you can get back to Alan Richman's hand-wringing over a tedious, clandestine department store purchase.

Also, though it's a recipe flick, it has dashes of flavor you have to savor. What other movie can show you little kids dancing gleefully to "Good King Wenceslas" and pull it off? Mix in the stunt casting of Billy Bob as the American President, played with sharp, smarmy perfection in just his brief interlude. Toss in the bitter, sad acknowledgment that not all Christmas wishes or romances come true, and you only heighten the sweet happiness for the lovers who get their shit together. It's a multitude of these little touches -- which most movies miss, but the extra running time in LA allows for -- that take this flick from an English trifle and transform it into a holiday treat.

In a lot of ways, this movie really is like Christmas. There's nothing really new here. We've seen all the main scenes and tactics before, from desperate, romantic chases to the swelling music. But it's so old it's kind of traditional, and yet it's all glossed up with a modern twist and wit. And there's so much good cheer flowing through it all and some really endearing quips so that it ends up looking tinsel bright.

And yeah, it's still manipulative. But it's like those candy-cane cocktails. You know what's in them -- all that sugar and syrupy liquor mixing together -- so you know why they're giving you that fuzzy feeling. You also know that if you have too many, you'll make yourself really fucking sick. But those cocktails and Love Actually are just so good going down. And 'tis the season, right? Might as well indulge.

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