I was watching the end of the movie “Love, Actually” at 4 AM the other night and I realized something about the octopus.
First, I’ll explain where we are in the story: On Christmas Eve, the prime minister gets a Christmas card from the girl he loves, Natalie, who used to work for him, which prompts him to go house to house on one street to look for her (it’s a fantastic sequence, and I never tire of watching it, especially the part where the prime minister and his driver sing Christmas carols for three little girls).
Finally, he gets to Natalie’s house, where the family is about go to a Christmas pageant. Natalie’s mom complains to the prime minister about having to sew her son’s octopus costume for the pageant. The prime minister says he’ll give them a ride to the pageant. He and Natalie sit in the backseat with the kid in the octopus costume between them, making it awkward for them to confess their feelings for one another. They give some vague apologies for what went wrong in the past, before arriving at the pageant, where the octopus kid finally climbs over the prime minister and squeezes through the door.
Here’s what I realized: The movie itself is an octopus. There are many different love stories, all of which are tied together (at least one character in each knows a character in another). There are, in fact, eight stories:
1. Prime minister and Natalie
2. Alan Rickman's affair with his co-worker despite being married to Emma Thompson
3. Laura Linney loving the foreign guy
4. Liam Neeson getting over the death of his wife while his pre-teen kid loves a girl from his school
5. The guy who loves Keira Knightley even though she's married to Chiwetel Ejiofor
6. Colin Firth loves the Portuguese woman
7. Bill Nighy loves his manager
8. The crazy dude who loves American girls
The mother who complains to the prime minister about having to sew eight legs onto the octopus costume is a stand-in for the writer who — at this very moment in the script — has to sew up the movie. And he does that at the Christmas pageant.
Not convinced? Richard Curtis, the writer-director, is one of the greatest writers alive and a hero in England. As I’m writing this now, the symbol feels, if anything, a bit gimmicky, even obvious. But that’s the point of the movie — the entire thing is gimmicky, schematic. It sets up many different situations in which there’s the potential for love, and in most cases love flourishes, and in a couple it flounders.
I’ve always thought of Curtis as the British Cameron Crowe. Both are romantic comedy writers reminiscent of Billy Wilder. And both are not afraid to be schematic, to be a bit over the top. They’re not afraid to be sentimental. Sometimes they go overboard — Colin Firth getting the new diary at the end of “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” the entire “Vanilla Sky” — but more often, they make it work brilliantly.