What to Watch this Holiday Instead of Cringing Through Love, Actually, and Why

A character in the film “Love, Actually” goes to his best friend’s house to make things even more awkward with said friend’s wife by telling her he’ll love her until she’s a mummified corpse. WTF.

By Michelle Barbera, Contributor

I was not among the prescient people who knew what an insane, dirty-chimney fire the 2004 film Love, Actually is. I fell for it hook, line, and sinker and watched it every holiday season for years without shame. It does have a pretty great cast and some good acting – Emma Thompson can’t go wrong – and Hugh Grant and Colin Firth can’t not be charming, but boy has this progenitor  to unwatchable holiday trash like New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day not aged well. (RIP Garry Marshall, you did great work to offset these hundred-headed titans of garbage). Over the past few year though, an increasingly large pit forms in my stomach upon each viewing like an off figgy-pudding lodged inside my digestive tract.

However, a brilliant comedian and actor I know had Love, Actually‘s number from the beginning. Zabeth Russell (who has appeared on TV in roles on several shows including Fresh Off the Boat, Ratched, You’re the Worst, Modern Family and the Office), I was told by a mutual friend years ago, hated Love, Actually passionately upon its release. I didn’t understand at the time, but now I see Zabeth for the prophet she is. I caught up with her recently so she could enlighten me on how she saw through this bubbly confection for the Christmas horror movie it is and offer some alternative egg-nog-rom-com viewing.

MB: I will admit I loved Love, Actually when it came out and watched it again whenever it would pop up on cable and even on purpose around Christmas every year. Over the last decade I completely lost my taste for it, but you knew it was bad from the beginning. How and why?

ZR: The real problem with this movie for me was that I could tell each storyline was supposed to somehow be whimsical and feel-good, but every single one of them made me feel terrible. That’s actually a special talent on the writers’ part. In hindsight, I’m impressed that there’s not one storyline that I really like, but the one that really rankled with me right from the beginning was the story in which Hugh Grant’s character falls in love with the junior staffer Natalie, and everyone keeps commenting on how “fat” she is, when she is in NO WAY FAT. I wish I could double-capitalize that, because it’s a double whammy. Like, you’re making fat jokes about a person who is fully normal-sized, how is that supposed to make anyone feel good? At all? Ever? Even HE talks about it! It’s gross. Imagine what it was like to watch that as an actual fat person. I don’t have to imagine it; I lived it.

“Like opening a beautifully wrapped present and finding a dead possum wearing a Christmas sweater inside.”

– Zabeth Russell, Prophet, on the film Love Actually

Also: the storyline with Andrew Lincoln and Keira Knightley in which he’s completely mean to her, until he reveals on notecards that he loves her is TERRIBLE. Now she still has to handle him probably still being mean to her while around her actual husband, who’s supposed to be his best friend, while also carrying around the uncomfortable knowledge that whenever he’s around, he really just wants to get in those pants. GROW UP, SIR. And after he tells her on the note cards, she runs after him and KISSES him? What? Oh my god. Awful.

Not to mention poor Laura Linney. We’re supposed to believe that because she’s helping take care of her brother, she’s unable to have any kind of romantic love or pleasure. That’s a horrible message, and also not at all true.

And the terrible British guy who nabs, like, a foursome with these one-dimensional American women just because of his accent. Oh my god, I’m getting angry all over again.
And why would you make me watch EMMA THOMPSON get cheated on so egregiously? I shiver. I love a misanthropic movie, just don’t dress it up as a feel-good holiday film. Nothing feels good here. Nothing.

MB: You expressed your hatred for the film enough that I heard about it from a mutual friend. Can you share your most scathing “Rotten Tomatoes” review snippet with us?

ZR: “Like opening a beautifully wrapped present and finding a dead possum wearing a Christmas sweater inside.”

MB: What other movies in the rom-com/feel-good holiday genre would you recommend instead of the film you refer to as Turds, Actually? I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.

ZR: First is Home for the Holidays with Holly Hunter and Robert Downey Jr. Technically this is a Thanksgiving movie but it has everything I like. It’s strange, it’s messy, it’s hopeful, it’s loud, it’s bizarre. I have to watch it every year.

Another one, though it’s very hard to find: A Smoky Mountain Christmas starring Dolly Parton. This one truly has everything. A disgruntled pop star and a determined paparazzo. Orphans! A witch! A country cabin! Lee Majors! Oh my god, it’s life-affirming.

Lastly: Last Holiday starring Queen Latifah! Just watch it! It’s so ridiculous, the story is bonkers, the setting is lush, there is a classic MAKEOVER GLOW-UP, the ending is textbook candy-coated goodness. And: Queen Latifah.

MB: I’m going to add some of my picks because I scour the streaming channels for Christmas movies more than I should. I’ve come to the opinion that the 2006 film “The Holiday” is a great replacement on the holiday playlist. Have you seen it and what do you think of it?

ZB: Oh yes! I’ve seen it. I like it, I don’t love it. That said: I still watch it, maybe not every year, but every other year? It definitely does the trick. Good to watch with a group, and wine, because you don’t have to pay that much attention.

Here are a few more  recommendations from us at WICF Daily:
Shop Around the Corner
The film that inspired You’ve Got Mail, this 1937 film starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sallavan is somehow more progressive than Love Actually.
You’ve Got Mail
We all know Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks have chemistry and unlike Sleepless in Seattle, they actually get to interact throughout the film. It’s also fun to watch as a horror film, knowing that both the independent bookstore owner and the chain store exec will both eventually be run over by an Amazon Prime delivery truck.
The Best Man Holiday
A raucous comedy and effective tear-jerker (maybe a little too sad), the impressive cast really inhabit their characters and offer up genuine heart. The female characters get a lot more to do than in the original film The Best Man and the stakes are higher.
Christmas in Connecticut
Oh Barbara Stanwick, you sassy charmer. She plays the most awesome and believable woman who owns her life and gets it all.  This delightful farce is ahead of its time and full of great gags that deliver on the premise beautifully.
Bridget Jones’ Diary
Renee Zellwiger plays a specific, relatable, funny protagonist and delivers a successful fake British accent. Plus Hugh Grant and Colin Firth getting in a knock-down, drag-out fight is comedy gold.
And that’s it , Folks. Happy holidays and stay safe.