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Not the American President actually

The other night I finally got around to watching the DVD of Love Actually. And I believe that netiquette demands that I now flag up a “spoilers” warning, for all those millions of Samizdata readers who have not see this movie yet but fully intend to, so that these people read no further and have some of the various plots spoiled for them.

I liked it, on the whole, although I preferred Four Weddings, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’ Diary, all of which I thought were quite special. I will probably have another look at Love Actually some time soon, but my first impression of it is that it was just forgettable fun by comparison. In regular romantic comedies, you have a gorgeous hero and gorgeous heroine, but reality is nodded to in the form of a cast of not so gorgeous other people. Not so in Love Actually. Here almost everyone was gorgeous, and almost everyone was indulging in a happy-ending romance. Which meant that reality could not ever be suspended and you could never, even as a pretend Friday night self deception, forget that this was just made up fantasy entertainment nonsense. And that is not so entertaining.

A further source of non-entertainment, for me, was that, wearing my political glasses, I could not help noticing that Love Actually contained a characteristic type of movie political propaganda. Not for the first time in the movies (and that is putting it very mildly) we were presented with a fantasy version of the President of the United States, and what is more a fantasy version which reflects little credit on either its creators or on the audience at whom it was aimed. Remember that President played by Michael Douglas in The American President? Well maybe not. Maybe you do not care for romantic comedies and prefer your movies to have more action and fewer discussions about which flower is the state flower of Virginia. But I did see that movie, and I recall that President Michael Douglas was several notches to the left of Clinton in his politics (i.e. gung ho for the whole global-warming ban-car-exhausts thing and gung ho against private gun ownership), but that in his personal conduct (i.e. his sex life) he behaved impeccably.

The Republicans, however, in the person of wicked Richard Dreyfuss, attacked this American President just as they actually attacked the real American President when that movie was first shown, President Bill Clinton.

But the Republicans did not, in reality, attack Clinton’s in reality not very left wing at all and hence rather unattackable politics. They went instead for Clinton’s in reality extremely sordid sex life.

In other words, the Republicans in The American President behaved as they had for real, but this time with no excuse and despite the fact that this time it made no sense. Despite the fact that President Michael Douglas was politically very vulnerable and personally untouchable, they attacked him on personal rather than on political grounds. They mostly ignored his (presumed popular) left wing opinions (apart from a few complaints about Annette Bening burning a flag twenty years ago), and instead attacked his (still presumed sordid by warped Republican standards but in reality blameless to Republicans as to all others) sex life. Clinton supporters in the audience (and most of the audience for this particular genre of movies would appear to be left of centre, if they are anything at all politically, judging by all the political assumptions such movies have embedded in them) were thus able to wallow in righteous indignation not just at the badness of Republicans, but also at their factual wrongness and political absurdity. The excuse for pandering thus to the Democrat demographic is that this is fantasy, just a happy little date movie, a night at the cinema, and they are the people who will mostly be watching the movie. But this was fantasy touched with serious, in reality, self-deception. It was a window into the warped thinking about the nature of Republicans of the average Democrat supporter.

It says quite a bit about American political culture that the writer of The American President, Aaron Sorkin, then went on to write The West Wing.

Not that any of that stops me from like The American President very much. Michael Douglas and Annette Bening were between them almost enough to make me love the Tokyo Treaty, gun control, and girls being christened Sydney.

In Love Actually, the American President appears only as a cameo, played by Billy Bob Thornton. But this time he is a mirror image of President Michael Douglas. This time he is the personification of everything evil, both politically and personally. Politically, his stance towards Britain is “here is what we want and if you get in our way fuck you”, without any attempt to explain that what the actual American President now wants and is determined to get might actually make some sense, or any suggestion that Americans are capable of being polite while being firm. Plus President Billy Bob Thornton makes a Clintonian lunge for Downing Street tea lady Martine McCutcheon, already the object of the affections of Prime Minister Hugh Grant. (President Bush has been much criticised, but never, so far as I am aware, for making random passes at the help, and I don’t believe that even Clinton would have behaved like this at Number Ten Downing Street, although I could be wrong about that.)

Anyway, PM Grant gets jealous and proceeds then to denounce President Billy Bob in public, thereby trashing the Special Relationship, to assumed universal (i.e. Emma Thompson) approval, but which had me fearing for the future of my country. Once again, a national leader lunges leftwards, Michael Douglas style, and that is supposed to be a happy ending.

All of which just added to the sense of unreality of the whole thing, and made it that much less enjoyable.

I recall critics mostly trashing this movie. The left of Blair politics of it didn’t save it in their eyes, I guess because as far as they are concerned Hugh Grant can do no right. They damned the movie with faint praise by saying that only the couple who met by being nude body doubles together were any good or any fun. But the bloke in this particular duo claimed to have had a job earlier as Brad Pitt’s body double, and he would have looked about as convincing doing that as I would. Nevertheless, a nice idea.

And a nice little movie, despite its (for me) sneaky politics. There were lots of good little scenes I have not mentioned, my favourite one that I will now mention being where the idiot English bloke, who goes to America because he imagines that over there, gorgeous chicks (last spoiler warning!) will love him, gets everything he dreams of. This is played most entertainingly, with what is rapidly becoming his trademark goofy grin, by this guy.

21 comments to Not the American President actually

  • I’m amongst those benighted folks who found “Love Actually” to be pretty bad, despite Hugh Grant’s great charm. Apparently the screenwriter had noticed how pleasant the scene is at Heathrow when long-separated people see each other again, and hug and kiss. That’s OK, for a 15-second movie. Then introduce lots of first and second-rate actors, many of them vapid, and link all these people we don’t care about with various inane love stories, and have “I Love You” romantic moments, over and over again, like an endless Heathrow receiving line gone haywire, or an “All You Need Is Love” computer virus replicating itself for 2 1/2 excruciating hours. Awful doesn’t even begin to describe the experience.

  • Charles Copeland

    Where do you guys get the time to watch total crap like ‘Love Actually’? Thanks for warning us about it anyhow.

    BTW, amazing — how somebody who appreciates the great Whit Stillman (‘Metropolitan’, ‘Barcelona’, etc.) can claim that ‘Notting Hill’ is ‘quite special’. O tempora, o mores!

  • I haven’t seen this movie, but when it comes to Hollywood portrayals of American presidents I’ve noticed a common theme. Regardless of what their politics are supposed to be, all of them make much more believable presidents than any of the real presidents we’ve had in my lifetime.

    I’m not sure how much of that is because movie actors get unlimited takes, and how much is because they’re simply much better actors than the ones who go into politics.

  • I am quite a political animal myself, and yet I was able to enjoy the movie thoroughly without being bothered by its lame attempts to show us how America really is a big evil empire. If all you need is love, then love you’ll get here. Can’t wait to get my hands on the DVD version.

  • Andy Duncan

    A totally forgettable film, except for the appearance of that great Scottish export, Gregor Fisher, Richard Curtis’s entirely understandable and thinly-veiled obsession with Keira Knightley, the nauseous ‘young love’ stuff including some very bad drum miming worthy of the Harrison Ford Russian Accent award for film production hilarity, and the obvious way Alan Rickman’s character did the wrong thing in order to introduce some sadness into the melange, presumably to counterweight the saccharine sweetness of the 10-year-old singer kissing-her-drummer scene. Yeuccchhh!!!!

    BTW, Curtis, how dare you inflict this bad ending onto Alan Rickman’s storyline. He should’ve done the right thing, and pulled out the necklace, at the right moment, you cad, and sorted it all out.

    I also do wish Colin Firth would STOP playing Mr D’Arcy over and over and over again. Come on Colin, you’ve made your wedge, now get over it, and get back to acting, rather than smouldering all the flippin’ time. You’re better than this! Get back to blood and guts and attacking people in aeroplanes! 🙂

    Rating: Definitive Chick Flick

    Guys, watch it to figure out what the chicks are talking about, and get some Pinot Grigio on ice in case you get lucky with one of them simpering over Colin Firth. If you are just with other men, on a bored Friday night in Billy-No-Dates land, simply get the latest forgettable Steven Segal Kung Fu flick, and have just as many laughs watching Mr Segal’s body doubles get swapped in and out of the action. The Segal film, whatever it is this season, Red Death, Hong Butcher, Thai Knots, whatever, will be just as memorable.

  • Amelia

    It was okay- very forgettable. Used to have hots for Colin, but don’t think he is aging particularly well. The portrayal of American President/gratuitous slap at U.S. did bug me at the time. One thing that really bugged me, was the writer placing the phrase “she has great pipes” or some such into the American President’s mouth. I had never heard this expression before and don’t think its American. Great lungs yes, great pipes? What does that mean?

  • Andy Duncan

    Always one to do the clan a favour, Amelia, there’s some great pipes here:

    You can even buy the CD! $-)

    But whatever you do, please, please, please, do not buy the following DVD:

    You’ll only encourage ’em.

  • Verity

    I loathed “Four Weddings And A Funeral” and only seethed my way through it so I could trash it later. It had enough holes in the plot to strain several pounds of cauliflowers – not least being, how come Andie McDowell kept getting invited to all these social events, but didn’t know anyone there? They all knew each other, but Andie McDowell didn’t know anyone. She was always standing around by herself. Maybe she was a gate crasher.

    The older man – the one who died – also didn’t seem to be integrated in this group of bright young things. He was only put in the movie so he could have a funeral.

    Am I the only person in the world who thinks Hugh Grant is a vapid bore? Running around pretending to be frantic and having mannered nervous tics simply isn’t funny. (Granted, so to speak, neither were his lines.)

    The one talent who provided the single amusing 30 seconds in the entire movie was wossname, the Mr Bean guy, as the preacher. He was certainly a more recognisable real character than anyone else in the movie.

    I would never contemplate watching another film with Hugh Grant in it – especially if it was written by leftie Curtis. Drab.

  • I agree with Andy Duncan re: the Rickman story ending. IMO, Bill Nighy stole the show.

    I nearly walked out during the first 5 minutes because of the awful line about 9/11. To Curtis et al, 9/11 happened elsewhere, but to us here, it happened at home, and not to someone else, either.

  • Theodopoulos Pherecydes

    Almost all movies are a complete waste of time.

  • Theodopoulos Pherecydes

    …even harmful, actually.

  • eric

    Theo may be on to something. I nearly walked out of this film too, being dragged to it by the wife, and I could swear that Claire Short was one of the cabinet minister extras.

    What a lame P.O.S.

    I think I want to see Hugh Grant next in a WWI movie where he gets gassed on the Somme and dies horribly.

  • toolkien

    Most movies are meant to pass a little time. Doing it too much will make your mind flabby. It also may tend to indoctrinate weak-minded folk when their guard is down just ‘trying to pass the time’. Perhaps there’s a third, the underlying conditioning one gets from fiction in general that everything sums up tidily at the end. They resent it when real life doesn’t and their natural inclination is that someone must be blame-able for it. Further, that may be embedded in fiction as well as the baddie usually gets his come-uppance, and in real life there maybe no one to blame for life’s pitfalls (other than oneself, but that is a rare find in the body of fiction out there).

    Four Weddings was fine (as a rental), Nodding Hill was o.k. (bought through movie club – opened before I knew what it was). Had little interest in seeing Love Actually as it seemed to be a canned rehash of the above. They’ll keep making them until tickets sales flag. I jumped ship on Blinkey Grant a while back. No interest in seeing what are now stock characters in any sort of movie.

  • Hi Brian,

    there was some political comment on Love, Actually when it was released, from the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee no less. Polly took her cinema crowd’s cheers when Hugh Grant trashed the president as the inspiration for a rant on how we Brits should abandon our links with America and move closer to dynamic old France and Germany.

    I covered it on Eursoc in December under the title Bollocks, Actually.

    Here’s the link


    All best


  • Percy Dovetonsils

    What confuses me is why Billy Bob Thornton was cast, as he’s far too thin to be a “prototypical” American. Aren’t all of us Americans supposed to be waddling lardballs encased in polyester?

    I do hope they at least had him drooling, or waving a gun around.

    Jeez, I wish these Euro artsy types would get their anti-American stereotypes correct. Do we have to do all their heavy lifting for them?

  • Jen

    coulda skipped on the nudity…alan was the hottest guy in there…felt semi-bad for emma thompson…but she is rather a boring actress anyway….bill nighy was great and mr. bean gave the movie the funny aspect….hugh grant was tiring as usual and colin firth was an amazing actor as well though i saw mr. darcy in there from P&P…alas….billy bob thornton as the american president?!…why oh why?!……as for keira knightly, she looked extremely pretty and i felt kinda sorry for the guy that loved her….anyways…..not a bad movie but like i said…the porno scenes need to be cut as most do not wanna see that….and the little love scenes with martine mccutcheon and hugh grant were funny and lovable….ah….liam neeson was outstanding but then he usually is in everything he does…and alan rickman…well…the man is fine…he makes me drool and in essence he is the main reason i went to go see this flick…..i wont lie to you….i will buy it as it comes out a day after my birthday…..oh yea and rickmaniacs rule!

  • hexe

    I don’t quite understand what Mr. Douglas’ performance had to do with this film, but ok…..

    Love actually has its weak points (Hugh Grant one of them, but then I never have been a fan of this whole *english puppy charm*) but all in all it’s good entertainment. I could have done without Billy Bob Thornton. While I’m sure it comes as a shock to you Americans, there ARE still some Europeans who are able to see the difference between politic personality, real personality and show personality – please give us SOME credit for intelligence!

    The good stories in the film being

    Rickman/Thompson though they could have find a more tempting rival for Thompson than Heike Makatsch, that *make a move on your boss* was simply horrible acting!!

    The Guy who travels to America; sorry I KNOW it screams cliché but I couldn’t help it – I adore this thread.

    The Rockstar and his clumsy declaration of love and devotion to his manager at the end.

    Medium rating for

    Liam Neeson and his stepson. I really really like Mr. Neesons style of acting, but the whole story could have used a lot less saccarin….(and I couldn’t detect the relationship between Thompson and Neeson – siblings? friends?)

    Colin Firths thread had its moments but all in all not my cup of tea.

    The porno thread – I wasn’t offended by it I just didn’t see what it had to do with anything???

    Hugh Grant had ONE really good line – when he asked Mrs. Thatcher if she had had problems of this kind. The rest of the movie he simply was – Hugh Grant.

    The girl with the demanding brother – good idea but it simply didn’t move me, it was filmed in a too distant and uninterested manner.

    I’m a fan of Rickman and Thompson which was the main reason to see this film and they didn’t disappoint me (by the way: Mrs Thompson had to play a slightly boring wife which doesn’t automatically mean she’s a boring actress..)

    The film as such was average – seen better ones, but out there are films which are much worse.

  • Starling

    “without being bothered by its lame attempts to show us how America really is a big evil empire”

    (note, this statement does not indicate whether I agree with these sentiments or not, don’t flame me)

    I don’t think that was the point. I think it had two functions: one, to show the US audience how a lot of UK and EU continent citizens think about the US, and two, to give many EU citizens a “feel good” “I SO think so too” feeling.

  • Starling

    Apologies for the double comment, but if you think Emma Thompson is a boring actress, watch her play Trelawney in the new Harry Potter film!

  • I love, love, LOVE Rickman, which is why I bothered to watch … and as perverse as he is Hugh is simply adorable. Ever since Bridget Jones Colin irks me, and Emma is charming as always. Kiera is beautiful, and Alan’s secretary is not. ^^

    Rickman/Thompson was nice, but there could have been more of it. And the confusing ending sucks. More sucking face between good friends, people!

    Also confused about the Kiera plot.

    Nudity…eww. Mom kept walking in on the wrong moments.

    And Billy Bob as the President?! No wonder Europe hates us!!!

    Hugs and platonic kisses to all fellow Rickmaniacs —

    Go buy POA and drool in the comfort of your home!

  • nunya

    Martine’s part should have been longer. I missed her when David fired Natalie! And as for the flashcards shown to Keira, she’s already skeletal!!! Cheers to Martine!