To some people, love doesn’t exist unless you acknowledge it in front of other people.
Ah, Valentine’s Day: that most beloved or most hated day of the year, depending on your relationship status and whether or not you’re happy about it. When I was younger I used to dress all in black and declare that I was mourning the death of St. Valentine, a tradition that stopped short the first year I actually had a date that day. Because what’s life without double standards?
Like many holidays, Valentine’s Day is a time that draws out different reactions in different people. You might be in a brand-new relationship, a little shy but excited to see where it goes.
Maybe you’re a happily married couple of 20 years with two or three kids, thinking, “Gosh, life is pretty great right now.” Or (hopefully not) you might be celebrating your 50th anniversary and getting the uncomfortable thought that this other person has suddenly become a stranger to you.
But this isn’t restricted to Valentine’s Day: these scenarios merely fit in with the theme because, what, it’s a holiday to celebrate love? So’s Christmas, if you’re doing it right (because Jesus was born in the summer). So’s Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, if you’re on good terms with yours. Heck, so’s Halloween, if you like your kids and want them to be happy with obscene amounts of candy.
So what does all that rambling mean? It means I’m gonna try a bit of an experiment, and this review will be a little different than the ones I normally do.
I’m going to talk about 2010’s Valentine’s Day, and I’m gonna talk about it in the context of another movie that some people (read: me) have called the best romantic comedy of all time: Love Actually.
To the best of my knowledge, Love Actually kicked off the “single movie featuring lots of famous people in lots of intertwined stories at a festive time of year” trend. (Tell me in the comments section if I’m wrong, and make sure to compliment my hair at the same time so my feelings aren’t hurt.) It worked beautifully to show off the movie’s aboutness, which is “love actually is all around.”
In Valentine’s Day, the multi-story format was meant to serve the exact same purpose. But for some reason, didn’t have the charmingly romantic effect it was meant to. My purpose in writing this review is to figure out why that might be.
Let’s start with the casting. Both films feature an all-star (occasionally Academy Award-winning) cast of new and classic greats. Love Actually has Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Colin Firth, Rowan Atkinson, Liam Neeson, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Martin Freeman, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Keira Knightley, Bill Nighy… and that’s not even mentioning cameo appearances by January Jones, Denise Richards, and Claudia Schiffer.
Valentine’s Day has Bradley Cooper, Patrick Dempsey, Julia Roberts, Jessicas Alba and Biel, Jennifer Garner, Jessica Biel, Hector Elizondo, Shirley MacLaine, Anne Hathaway (!!), Topher Grace, Jamie Foxx, Ashton Kutcher, Queen Latifah, Taylors Swift and Lautner… if anything, it feels like VD (hehe) has even more star power than LA. Or maybe it’s just that both movies have stars who are more or less gathered from the same isolated area of the globe, and I’ve heard of more of the ones on my side.
For some reason, there seemed to be a lot more chemistry among the Love Actually cast. And I have a theory about that. Have you heard those jokes about how Great Britain has like twelve actors and they’re all in Harry Potter and Doctor Who? Slight exaggeration, yes, but it’s definitely worth noting that there’s a smaller pool of actors across the pond. They work with each other more often, they run in all the same circles, and they really do know each other. And I just don’t think that’s the case in the US of A.
So as far as chemistry goes, I think the American actors are trying to create relationships while the British actors are building on relationships that are already there.
Then there’s the stories themselves, which are similar in essence: people are in varying types of relationships, whether it’s children and parents, casual hookups, new lovers, engaged couples, newly married couples, old married couples… There are all different kinds of relationships, and they’re all explored in the context of the holiday.
I don’t think it’s the quality of writing of the stories that’s the problem, though. Since they’re all vignettes, just short little snatches of people’s lives, it’s nearly impossible to screw that up. Maybe the fact that everyone knows each other is a little implausible, but sometimes the real world does work that way.
And the stories themselves really are charming in both movies: a mother coming home from active duty to see her son for one night, an older couple who are ready to renew their vows but are struggling to move forward from a past affair, two movie stand-ins awkwardly flirting in the middle of a sex scene shoot, the new prime minister falling for one of his staff, two high school students heading off to separate universities and determined to have sex for the first time, a married man toying with the idea of an affair…
I couldn’t possibly list all the stories that intertwine and connect with each other to form a large picture of what love is and what it means to different people. Suffice it to say, the storytelling isn’t the problem here. But I think I just realized what is.
Let me preface this by saying that I like holidays in all shapes and sizes, and I’m not trying to rain on anyone’s parade here. But Christmas is by far my favourite holiday, and that’s because, after weeks of preparatory hustle and bustle, I get to drop everything and spend time with the people who are important to me. Some people might say it’s a religious holiday or that it’s been overly commercialized, but I just see it as a chance to step back from life and focus on relationships.
Valentine’s Day, on the other hand, has started to feel like a competition. Whose boyfriend popped the question? Whose husband bought her an expensive piece of jewelry? Whose partner sent them a giant bouquet of roses and got a reservation at that restaurant no one else can even dream of getting into? If you’re not that person, clearly your significant other doesn’t love you as much as they should.
I know that’s not all people. I know some people are perfectly content to spend Valentine’s Day at home, watching Game of Thrones and eating hot wings. And to be perfectly honest, that sounds amazing. The time together is what matters, not the gesture or the amount of money spent. But it feels to me that if any holiday has been commercialized, it’s Valentine’s Day.
There are lots of conflicting accounts of how Valentine’s Day began, but everyone agrees that it’s supposed to be a time to tell people you love them. And something that’s always bothered me is, why can’t we tell them that every day?
This is starting to feel more like a rant on the state of the world’s holidays and less like a review, so I’ll steer it back on track with this thought: Love Actually hit pay dirt with its premise, and moviemakers have been trying in vain to reproduce its success with other important holidays like Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve (incidentally, both are Garry Marshall films).
But I don’t think those movies failed because the holidays aren’t as popular or because the casts weren’t as tightly knit. I think Valentine’s Day isn’t Love Actually because it depended too much on the value of the holiday itself. Valentine’s Day is specifically about what people do at Valentine’s Day—the gestures they do to show others they love them.
Love Actually is a love story that just happens to be set at Christmas, which gives the characters a why rather than a what. It looks into the whys and wherefores of relationships, exploring the reasons people act the way they do and what the consequences of those whys are. Also, more of the relationships were built on family and friendly bonds rather than romantic ones, which rounded out the overall story nicely.
I think Valentine’s Day could have succeeded as a film if it focused less on gestures and more on the reasoning behind them. For example, why are the older couple choosing to renew their vows now? Do the teenagers heading off to different schools secretly fear that long-distance isn’t going to work, and are they desperate to hang onto something that feels familiar when everything else about their lives is changing?
Without that depth, Valentine’s Day is an expensive present wrapped up with festive paper and ribbon. Love Actually is the “I love you” behind the present. And that, I think, is why one movie will last forever while the other is a rather disappointing knockoff. (Incidentally, if you haven’t seen Love Actually yet, you should do that. Quality film.)
Final Grade: C
- I tried making Fiancé watch Love Actually, but the only part he liked was Andrew Lincoln, who is apparently in The Walking Dead. So I guess that’s cool?
- British people generally have better humour than Americans, I find. But that could just be me and my excessive love for dry humour, particularly when it’s delivered by people with that particular accent.
- Garry Marshall really likes putting his daughter and Hector Elizondo in his movies, doesn’t he? And calling out his past movies with references like Rodeo Drive? Like holy crap, dude. It’s like you’re building a Marshallverse here.
- I can’t possible be the only one who really, really enjoys seeing Taylor Swift act in things.
- Taylor Lautner, don’t act so embarrassed about taking your shirt off in front of people. You did it every ten seconds in Twilight.
- Ashton Kutcher, you don’t put the ring on the girl’s finger until after she’s said yes. It’s almost like this is your character’s first time doing this or something. It’s a rookie move and you’re better than that. That is all.