In Richard Curtis’s Christmas classic, Love, Actually (2003), the notion of love is presented as something so fleeting and superficial that it’s no surprise Curtis and his stories get the reputation of being infuriatingly slapdash. The characters in this misogynistic romantic-comedy equate sex appeal, idealised romantic pining and unhealthy obsessions with love, setting a rather toxic, and unrealistic, precedent for any viewer watching. Not only does Love, Actually spend two hours using fat jokes, homophobic masculinity and sexual harassment to spread the holiday cheer, but it also drives its story on cultural and gender stereotypes, perpetuating outdated clichés — even for the early 2000s — with one unlikeable plotline after another. While Curtis’ characters are all riddled with misjudged representations, it’s Colin Frissell’s (Kris Marshall) narrative that personifies the fundamental issues with this film.
Colin, an average, laddish, English twenty-something, is fed up with being rejected by “stuck up” English women, who aren’t “cool” or “game for a laugh” (while not taking into consideration that it’s, perhaps, his sexist pick up lines and unattractive personality that is not getting him any dates). He decides the best course of action is to go to America where American girls would “seriously dig me with my cute British accent.” As Colin’s story progresses, he does, in fact, go to America, and in his first 24 hours in snowy Wisconsin, he has what is assumed to be wild sex with four stunning but dumb American women.
Now, the issue with Colin’s storyline isn’t necessarily romanticising moving to a new country and falling in love with a foreign stranger (we’ve all been there). But rather, the problem lies more with Curtis’s fetishisation of cultural stereotypes, a theme that recurs throughout his romantic comedies. Before Love, Actually, Curtis created cinema’s unrealistical Englishman with Hugh Grant’s Charles in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), while making Andie MacDowell’s American Carrie an insufferable social climber. Similarly, Hugh Grant’s William is the innocent bystander in Julia Roberts’ vain celebrity in Notting Hill (1999). Colin’s arc is just another addition to Curtis’s cinematic vendetta towards English/American relationships.
Compared to Love, Actually’s other male leads, Marshall lacks the suave, gentlemanly attractiveness seen in the likes of Hugh Grant, Colin Firth or Andrew Lincoln. Rather, Colin is referred to as “a lonely, ugly arsehole” by his friend, highlighting his homely physique and ordinary disposition. Yet, his inflated ego gives him the confidence to think that his standard-issue, unimpressive accent will be enough to make him “Colin, the God of Sex.”
Marshall’s character is designed to counteract the very cliché of the sophisticated Englishness he is attempting to seduce women with. Curtis, in a film with a plethora of Mr Darcys’, gives Marshall the role of the Englishman in New York — or, in this case, Milwaukee — playing to the absurdity of the stereotype associated with traditional Englishness for Americans. The joke works because Marshall isn’t Grant; he isn’t the dashing, posh Englishman. He’s just a plain and boring guy.
But where Curtis loses the joke is by having Colin’s non-existent English charm actually work. What Curtis projects instead is a much more chauvinistic insult on American women, treating them as bimbos who sleep with any ill-attractive man just because he speaks in a certain way.
After Colin is taken to an all-American bar, he meets Stacey (Ivana Miličević), a brunette beauty queen who talks like an off-brand Paris Hilton and has nothing much behind her eyes. She immediately notices Colin’s accent (and strangely refers to it as English rather than the generic British title Americans typically give to people from the UK and Ireland — so are they stupid or not, Richard?) and calls over her friend to investigate this new specimen. Stacey’s friend Jeannie (January Jones) is introduced through a full-body pan that showcases her perfect assets and is presented like Hollywood’s girl next door with her platinum blonde hair, tight clothing and flirtatious demure. During the epilogue, we are introduced to yet another lacklustre American woman, Carla (played by Denise Richards, known culturally for being a sex symbol and party girl), who Colin brings back to London simply to be his mates new playboy bunny. As more American women show up in Colin’s sphere, it’s clear the beauty outweighs the brains between them all, typecasting all the women into a sexist category and furthering the idea that these women don’t deserve an ounce of respect.
The way Curtis represents a nation of women creates the connotation that American women are willing to jump into bed without any considerations of the man. It sustains this false cultural stereotype that Colin creates of America and their women, imprinting an image of American women as vain, shallow and sexually willing for the Englishmen watching. The women Curtis cast have the talent and popularity for character lines like Linney or Knightley, with Richards being a cultural icon from her role as a Bond girl and Jones’s soon-to-be Emmy-nominated turn as Betty Draper in Mad Men. But, instead, Curtis opts to use them as side pieces that have no development or agency in their own right.
By pigeon-holing entire identities and nationalities into these overused conventions, Curtis is perpetuating fetishes between England and America, insinuating that all American women are easy, daft bombshells, ready to pleasure any Englishmen with a charming turn of phrase. Through his characters, Curtis creates a rather hostile relationship between America and Britain, giving Britishness a higher morality and, quite frankly, education than any of the Americans present (see also Billy Bob Thornton’s rapist President compared to Grant’s virtuous Prime Minister, covered in Isaac Parkinson’s essay for this very volume).
Curtis’s film lacks any sort of nuance or depth, failing to actually articulate the reality of modern transatlantic relationships. Instead, Curtis opts for self-indulgent tropes that would make any culturally conscious global citizen cringe with embarrassment.