Andy Adams loaned me his DVD of Love Actually, the 2003 romantic comedy ensemble. Tammy and I were entertained by this clever tale of charming and sophisticated British urbanites searching for love in the midst of the confusion of 21st century life -- a running theme in director Richard Curtis' films (Notting Hill, Bridget Jones Diary, Four Weddings and a Funeral). The characters are mostly charming, endearing, and are presented in such a way that I found myself rooting for them. It's a sweet confection piece that warms the heart.
That said, many Chirstiain critics take exception to the use of the term "Love" (see the catalog of reviews on Christianity Today's website). Typical of Curtis' films, there's at least one randy character whose sole interest is sex. Many of the relationships seem mired in sexuality. And this leads to the question -- "What do they mean by love?" The film opens with Hugh Grant's voice over leading up to the climactic assertion that "Love actually is all around us" -- he says this in the face of the wrath and anger that is presented in popular media.
But what examples of love does this film give -- it tries to show a broad sampling, like a chineese buffet of love. Here are some of the situations:
* a heartbroken writer who falls for his portuguese housekeeper (and learns portuguese so he can propose to her)
* a woman infatuated with a co-worker, trying to work up the courage to proposition him.
* the woman above also sacrificially cares for her brother, who is institutionalized and has an unidentified mental/behavioral problem
* a charming British prime minister who falls for one of his housekeepers
* a sleazy us President who hits on aforementioned housekeeper (though he is married)
* a grieving widower who helps his step-son pursue his first case of puppy love
* a washed up rocker who realizes his best friend is the manager he's been dumping on for years
* two body doubles for a porn movie who fall for each other
* a hyper sexed guy named Colin who travels for a months vacation to the US to meet girls for sex (and improbably he meets four accomodating girls who are all roommates)
* a secretery who shamelessly hits on her married boss
* the aforementioned boss who buys expensive jewelry for this secretery and is discovered by his wife
* the aforementioned wife who continues to stay with her husband through this trial
* the best friend of a newlywed man, who is infatuated with the bride
What gives the film real charm is how all these lives are intertwined together. But can this truly be said to be an exposition of Love? This seems to be a case of verbicide -- killing a word by overuse. We have a whole wardrobe of words that could be used to describe these situations: infatuation, lust, pursuit, attraction, longing, desire, copulation, enchantment. Most of these stories (as in most romantic comedies) are about desire and pursuit -- not true love, but the search for someone. And therein lies the grave error. We have bought lock, stock, and barrel the idea that love is something that happens to is. Or perhaps that love is the overwhelming feeling in the heart that burns within and we have no control over it. But that isn't love -- it's desire.
"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, itis not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres." I Corinthians 13:4-7.
The value of romantic comedies is not in their teaching us how to love -- it is in reminding us of the longing to know someone who loves. Against the cynics who urge a transactional worldview (take what you can and give what you must) -- against the dullards who only appreciate the drive to consume other people like morsels, regardless of the damage inflicted on their hearts -- against the witty ironicists who undercut any sense of affection and commitment, romantic comedies demonstrate that we yearn to know and to be known. We yearn for that mutual giving and receiving that is demonstrated over the long term. This is true enough.
Where the romantic comedy gets it wrong is in believing that we just have to find the right person, and we'll know that person because they'll have a hint of magic about them. That hint of magic, they lead us to believe, is the suprme good for which we ought to throw caution to the wind, excuse all manner of personality flaws, and recklessly give our hearts over to an otherwise total stranger. And therein lies the flaw.