Who doesn’t love Love Actually? I know I do. It’s such a sentimental, goofy, overblown pile of mush and I love it even more for being so. It can be sappy, but a lot of the situations and character interactions it entails are blunt, awkward truths made even more hilarious by an even more awkward cast, and encapsulate the meaning of Christmas. Not all the couples work out, not all of the individual stories end well or in satisfaction for characters or audiences. But that’s life, and they make the best out of what they have at this time of year, which is what it’s really about. Some turn out splendidly for the characters, leaving them beaming. Some learn tough lessons that are necessary for growth, some find love in storybook fashion and others are simply there for comic relief. What comedy and tearful drama we get as too, delivered by an astoundingly massive cast of British legends, speckled with a few familiar Yankee faces just to garnish the giant British figgy pudding. Liam Neeson plays a grieving father whose son (Thomas Bodie Sangster) is sick with love. Neeson’s sister (Emma Watson, grounded, real, heartbreaking) deals with her irresponsible husband (Alan Rickman, incapable of a false note). The newly elected Prime Minister (Hugh Grant in full flustered, fumbling glory) is attracted to his cute secretary (Martine Mcutcheon) and aloof writer Colin Firth feels pangs for his Portuguese housekeeper (Lúcià Moniz) who speaks not a word of English. Laura Linney has a steamy office romance with Rodrigo Santoro whilst dealing with an ill sibling, Bill Nighy is hysterical as a cynical Grinch of a pop star with a jaded facade, Keira Knightely, Chiwetel Efjor and Andrew Lincoln are involved in a subtle love triangle, and there’s all kinds of interwoven vignettes including Martin Freeman, Elisha Cuthbert, Ivana Milicevic, January Jones, Claudia Schiffer, Shannon Elizabeth, Denise Richards, Joanna Page, Sienna Guillory, Billy Bob Thornton as the sleazy US President and a priceless Rowan Atkinson as the world’s weirdest jewelry salesman who gives new maniacal meaning to holiday gift wrapping. It’s a big old circus of Christmas spirit with all kinds of different desires, motivations and relationships that reaches a festive fever pitch before erupting into a joyous finale of giddy Yuletide melodrama and cathartic good times that is impossible not to smile at. An annual watch for me.
Johnny English is kind of like James Bond, except his stairs don’t quite reach the attic. The bumbling spy comedy has seen many different iteration, from foppish Clouseau to classy but dense Get Smart, but English is my favourite of the bunch because it’s blessed with the star power of Rowan ‘Mr. Bean’ Atkinson, a man who’s so funny that he’s still hilarious when he’s not even trying, or even attempting a serious role. There’s something about his impish, mischievous, pointedly smug yet somehow friendly visage that makes him perfect for comedy. Johnny English is the Crown’s last hope, a hapless desk jockey shunted into the field of MI6 work when literally every other active agent is killed in a failed op. Atkinson plays him to a note: resoundingly confident and assured of his skill, charm and charisma, yet endlessly, unbelievably stupid in every situation he enters. Parachuting onto the wrong building, royally fucking up a London vehicular pursuit, accidentally shooting a poor secretary with a knockout serum from a ballpoint pen, the list goes on. If there’s a carefully planned mission or set piece, it exists solely for him to bumble through and screw up spectacularly, like a room full of dominoes set up for a toddler to decimate. He’s up against one of the most ridiculous villains cinema has ever seen, a ‘jumped up Frenchman’ called Pascal Sauvage, some fruitcake billionaire who wants to turn the UK into a giant prison after he’s stolen the crown jewels and quite literally the throne as well. He’s played by John Malkovich in a L’Oréal worthy wig and spluttering out a French accent that’s so terribly misguided it makes his Russian one from Rounders sound half-legit, and if you’ve seen that film you’ll know what I mean. You need a villain as idiotic as the hero in this type of thing though (McGruber understood that well), and it’s a pleasure to watch ever eccentric pompously send up his own image with good cheer. There’s also a sexy Bond girl, or rather ‘English girl’, who’s eons smarter than the man as well and played by Australian singer Natalie Imbruglia. This is silly stuff all round, non of it believable in anything but a satirical fashion, but it’s great fun, carried by Atkinson’s effortless prancing antics and some genuinely hilarious set pieces. My favourites are when he has to pretend to be retarded to get out of a sticky situation that was naturally his own fault to begin with, and when he actually flips on the palace loudspeakers for Sauvage to hear his whole plan as he whispers it to his sidekick, Malkovich’s exasperated reactions are inspired. There’s a sequel, Johnny English Reborn which is fun but not quite up to this pedigree, and a third one coming out this year that I’ll be checking out as well.