Ranking the Subplots in Love Actually

Because it’s December and watching Christmas movies in December is an inevitability, Scott and I kicked off our holiday movie viewing with Love Actually last night. Divisive as it is, I love this 135-minute schmaltzfest. I’m inevitably a wreck by the time the credits roll, and I always come away thoroughly satisfied with the majority of the subplots, of which there are very many.

However, one isn’t always as strong as the next, and it seems appropriate to rank them in order of goodness right here, right now, beginning with…

Colin, God of Sex.


It’s weird to me that this subplot is even in the movie. While most of the relationships are at least believable, the idea of an idiot Englishman going to Wisconsin and stumbling upon a group of even less intelligent women attracted to him on the basis of accent alone is just ridiculous and not at all fun to watch. The movie would be better off without it.

Billy Mack and His Chubby Manager.


This is when we get into subplots that aren’t bad, but don’t have the depth and/or heartstring-tugging value that the truly great subplots do. Its value is in its use as a framing device: if Sam didn’t see Billy on TV, he wouldn’t have made the decisions he did, and the song is used so frequently throughout the movie that these guys really need to be there. And the conversation they share in the end is truly touching.

Sarah, Karl, and Crushing Disappointment.


Guys, I get mad just looking at this picture. Laura Linney’s performance is nearly as crushing as Emma Thompson’s (we’ll get there, don’t worry)–she’s a wonderful sister, too wonderful, really, and her closeness to her mentally challenged brother prevents her from engaging in a romantic relationship with the Greek god-esque Karl. This one’s just hard to watch beginning to end, but it’s well-acted and rings true in its sadness.

The Prime Minister and His Irrepressible Crush.


Something feels kind of goofy about this one. While I certainly enjoy its conclusion, the lead-up is a little bit wrong-footed, mainly Creepy President and the weird “She’s so fat!” running gag. (To clarify, she isn’t.) But I find Natalie quite endearing, and Hugh Grant is at his Hugh Grant-y best, and it’s quite a smooch at the end there.

The Awkward Porn Stand-Ins.


I can’t call this one of the best stories because there’s almost no weight to it, but I do think it’s one of the most enjoyable. I mean, come on. They do stand-in work for sex scenes! All their interactions are very, very awkward! And they’re both so cute! Plus, it’s a pre-Sherlock/Hobbit/stardom Martin Freeman, and he’s endearing as he’s ever been. I could watch these two stumble through conversations about traffic backups all day.

“To Me, You Are Perfect.”


Ugh. Ugh. This one feels a lot realer than most of the rest. Keira Knightley is miraculously not annoying, Andrew Lincoln is perfectly tragic, and the way he tells her how he feels is just crushing. I’d watch an entire movie based on this one, especially if it ended with him not finding someone else. BECAUSE THAT’S LIKE LIFE.

The Novelist, the Housekeeper, and the Adorable Language Barrier.


This would also make a great full-length romcom: newly single novelist falls for his gorgeous young housekeeper, despite not speaking her language and never having a real conversation with her. I like watching Colin Firth Firth around, looking uncomfortable and somehow really appealing at the same time, and his broken Portuguese and her broken English in the midst of his proposal make for a pretty beautiful moment.

Flirting with Infidelity.


Ugh, these two, am I right?

This has always been Scott’s favorite subplot. He says it gives the film a sense of levity–not everything’s rosy, and not everything can be tied up quite so neatly as, say, porn doubles in awkward love or proposals in Portuguese. That’s something that rings true with a couple other subplots, but not so poignantly as it does when you’re watching Emma Thompson weep over the necklace her husband bought another woman, all backed up by Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” This one’s supremely performed, too, which gives it a lot of points.

And yet…

Daniel, Sam, and the Agony of Love.


Liam Neeson! Thomas Sangster! “All I Want for Christmas is You,” chalkboard messages, Titanic, Claudia Schiffer, and a really funny funeral song! I love the dynamic between stepfather and stepson here, how there’s no emotional swell of music near the end when Sam refers to Daniel as Dad for the first time, and how they continue to curse at each other even after both have found love (or at least the prospect of it). I watch Love Actually because I like feeling something for a couple hours on end. When it’s something sad, that’s alright, even appreciated. But when it’s something closer to unadulterated joy, that’s better, and that’s what comes from Sam and Daniel’s story.


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