If you asked anyone at the beginning of the 90s what cinema was missing, the vast majority would say a presentation of love from the point of view of conventionally attractive but wholly unimpressive, bumbling British men. Step up Richard Curtis. His depictions of love in the British middle classes are entertaining and witty in places. He knows how to warm an audience’s heart; he has a tried and tested formula. It is within this formula though that lurks something perhaps more hilarious, the real comedy with Curtis is unintentional and can be found just beneath the surface of his plot lines.
Curtis’ obsession with American women would be creepy if it wasn’t so funny. Of course, as we all know American women aren’t able to resist the temptations of an English man at the best of times (trust me I would know), but according to Curtis this temptation becomes greater still when they are inarticulate, blundering and distinctly mediocre. In all of Curtis’ male leads we of course see a pinch, if not a dash, of Richard himself. I know this because us writers can’t help but imbue our manipulation of language with bits of ourselves; our thoughts, our feelings and of course our platonic (and not so platonic) tendencies. I can’t help but imagine Curtis and friends sitting in dark Oxford pubs drunkenly discussing which American actresses they would smoothly (lamely) charm (pester) into bed with them. In Four Weddings and a Funeral Hugh Grant’s character hardly puts two coherent words together in front of Andie MacDowell yet his doe eyes, floppy hair and stammering English accent are enough to effortlessly woo her. After another hour of unimpressive and tiresome bumbling from Grant their love is sealed, in true Curtis style, with a snog. Their only conversation of substance in the entire film is a gratuitous and indulgent listing of the 33 men Andie MacDowell has slept with. Both Grant, on camera, and undoubtedly Curtis in the writers’ room are shocked yet titillated by the sight/thought of a woman speaking with such little candour, but I guess that’s Americans and their openness for you. Perhaps most hilarious and disturbing is Chris Marshall’s Colin Frissel in Love Actually. Colin Frissel is charmless, sleazy and a bit of a pervert, yet he is certain that he will be loved by American women. The story line here is quite literally ‘British men are irresistible to American women’. His visit to America again involves a conversation of about two coherent words with an American girl in a bar, some drooling over her breasts and the engagement in an orgy with his new friend and her three housemates. He even returns home with an American girl who falls immediately and lustfully in love with his friend. I truly wonder if Curtis has ever been to America.
Curtis’ class commentary is startling. In Love Actually we finally see Hugh Grant as a somewhat impressive figure – Prime Minister. He’s not your usual Prime Minister though. He’s young, good-looking, excellent at dancing and falls in love with a mere junior member of his household staff at no. 10, a woman from the rough part of Wandsworth no less. There is a touch of Romeo and Juliet about this, but instead of warring families and badly communicated suicides, post codes become a problem. As we all know true love knows no barriers and their affection is sealed with a snog on stage at a lovely looking South West London primary school with an enormous budget for a Christmas play. This PM knows how to win over the working class – it’s not with a properly functioning welfare system or a well-funded, well-run NHS but a snog, a simple snog. Whilst Hugh is falling in love, his sister, Emma Thompson, who also lives in Wandsworth, presumably the nice bit though, is falling heartbreakingly out of love. She seems to have it all; a nice house, a successful husband, two children but still she’s unhappy. Her husband is starting an affair with a woman who looks alarmingly like Tarantino’s Mia Wallace, still one of the weirdest references in cinematic history, and Thompson knows all about it. Here, through the undeniable power of light entertainment, Curtis proves that success doesn’t necessarily mean happiness and that even when living in the rough part Wandsworth, with your parents and siblings you can still find love and contentment. A modern day fable.
Curtis loves a kooky friend. The kind of friend who walks around with no shirt or who spikes their hair and dyes it red. Crazy stuff right. A weirdo who eats mayonnaise from the jar thinking its yoghurt to offset, no doubt, the banalness of his male leads. Perhaps these characters attempt to add a touch of normality and realism to his stories, but when his leads are swanning around falling in love with world-famous actresses who just happen to come into their failing travel bookshops on Portobello Road normality seems a long way away. These friends are always missing the same thing, love. Whilst the lead is blindly and earnestly following his heart these kooks pop up alone wearing a crude slogan t-shirt or a garish knitted hat to provide a moment of comic relief. In About Time though the kooky friend becomes a mentally ill sister and suddenly what the kooky friends in Four Weddings and Notting Hill represent changes. These characters become people to fix, unfulfilled lives to fulfil. The mentally ill sister’s depression in About Time manifests as a near deadly drink-driving accident but she is apparently cured when she snogs and falls in love with her brother’s best friend. Inevitably in all his films these friends find love. Curtis once again proves that love doesn’t discriminate, and even kooky badly dressed people can find happiness and fulfilment. Who knew?
Perhaps the moral of all Curtis’ films is that a snog really will solve everyone’s problems. I’m not sure if this is true but I’m more than happy to put it to the test.