And so this is Christmas (I quote the immortal words of John Lennon), and though it is certainly a white one from any view I have, it falls a little short of seeming terribly Christmassy. I attribute this to having been stuck in this house for virtually a full week, which means I’m in full “Give me the bat, Wendy. Just give me the bat” dementia at this point. It also means that I’ve no Christmas tree for what may be the first time ever.
I did—with some assistance—get out of here for part of one day (and I did manage to get an early screening of Sherlock Holmes as a result). However, since none but the intrepid with four wheel drive can actually get up the drive, the also netted me the pleasure of an uphill trudge across ice and a vast quantity of seemingly unmeltable snow at three o’clock in the morning. This event is why I have subsequently stayed put.
My original intention for my Christmas viewing—and this column—was to indulge in a small festival of Charlie Chan movies. In fact, there’s about two pages of Chan plans and Chaniana already done, but a power outage this morning (thankfully short-lived), dinner preparations, phone calls various and sundry (I am green with envy over the announcement of an archaeology game Ken Russell ended up with that sounds like all manner of fun), etc. put that plan to bed. But more than that, I was just feeling the need for something seasonal, but what?
None of the traditional answers for Christmas fare were appealing to me. (Much as I love Darren McGavin, I think I’m prepared to forego A Christmas Story for the rest of this life.) Even less traditional fare was quite right either. Even my standard of The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) wasn’t doing it for me, so I started casting about in my mind for possible new traditional Christmas fare. And the answer came in the form of Hugh Grant movies, which, no, does not mean I am suddenly filled with a burning need to harness up sled dogs and make my way to a showing Did You Hear About the Morgans?. I haven’t been cooped up that long.
Of the Hugh Grant vehicles I know well, Chris and Paul Weitz’s About a Boy (2002) and Richard Curtis’ Love Actually (2003) both qualified nicely. (I suppose Sharon Maguire’s Bridget Jones’s Diary  might have worked, too, but I’m not ready to forgive Renee Zellweger for New in Town just yet, though My One and Only helped.) Both films have Christmas scenes and Love Actually revolves around Christmas and Christmas-related events.
I think that part of what sets these apart from a great deal of Grant’s work (apart from being British, since he seems to make his more asinine choices in the States) is that neither one is actually strictly a Hugh Grant vehicle. Yes, the roles fit him and have almost certainly been tailored to fit him, but they’re not strictly about him and they don’t coast on having him do “those things Hugh Grant does so well.” Rather they give him roles that make use of those traits, but which require him to act and shape a character.
About a Boy is far and away the best film Chris and Paul Weitz have made—either together or separately—and it’s a model of how to adapt a novel to film. It knows what to keep and it knows what won’t translate well into the confines of a two hour film. (Dropping the whole plot point about Kurt Cobain’s death will also keep the film from dating.) As for its Christmas quotient, it not only depicts two Christmas celebrations, but Grant’s character lives off the royalties from his late one-hit-wonder father’s song, “Santa’s Super Sleigh.” It’s also pretty strong in the life lessons department, but don’t let that put you off. There are life lessons and life lessons—and these are considerably more thought-provoking than usual, not to mention handled with no little wit.
In the vaguest sense, About a Boy falls into the realm of romatic comedies, but it’s hardly a traditional one. Grant may play a shallow womanizer, but the only thing approaching an actual romance (when he meets Rachel Weisz) happens fairly late in the film, and even it’s far from an ordinary romantic relationship. Actually—and in spite of being clearly designed as a crowd-pleaser—it’s an unusual film all the way around. Some, though not all, of this is due to the Nick Hornby source novel. The Weitzes bring almost non-stop creativity to the way the film is made. Watching it again today, I was reminded of what a truly wonderful movie it really is.
Screenwriter Richard Curtis made his directorial debut with Love Actually, which is more an ensemble film than a Hugh Grant one. Curtis pulled together a cast most filmmakers could only dream of having in one movie—Grant, Colin Firth, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Bill Nighy, Alan Rickman, Laura Linney,Chiwetel Ejiofor, Keira Knightley—and threw in a couple of guests—Rowan Atknison and Billy Bob Thornton—as seasoning. Now, this is without a doubt a full-fledged Christmas movie. The whole film is built around Christmas. It’s even broken into segments detailing how close the action is to Christmas.
Curtis seems to have an affinity—if perhaps not a wholly traditional one—for the holiday. (There are also Christmas scenes in his latest film, Pirate Radio.) This probably oughtn’t be surprising. This, after all, is the man who had Mr. Bean (Rowan Atkinson) menace Baby Jesus in a Nativity set with model dinosaurs and crafted another scene (in the same episode) involving Mr. Bean with a turkey stuck on his head. Here he crafts a series of stories that sometimes interconnect involving various forms of love and romance that takes place around Christmas.
By way of a kind of a kind of framing story (but with its own take on love) the film is structured around an aging, burnt-out rocker (Bill Nighy) who is making a comeback bid by turning one of his hits into a cheesy Christmas song in hopes of it being named “Christmas Song of the Year.” Though only nebulously connected to the other stories, Nighy’s scenes are among the funniest in the film. At one point—reminded that young viewers are tuned into an interview show he’s plugging his record on—he offers this helpful advice, “Kids, don’t buy drugs—become a pop star and they’ll give ‘em to you for free.” There’s also his incredible music video—a ramped-up parody of the Robert Palmer “Addicted to Love” video—and other choice scenes.
The love stories in the film run the gamut from the comic, to the giddily romantic, to the bittersweet. Again, the movie qualifies as a romantic comedy, but that doesn’t have to be a pejorative term—and Love Actually proves this. It also provided a perfect second feature for my Christmas fix, which was all the more heartening by the realization that not all modern Christmas-themed fare has to be rubbish like Surving Christmas (2004), Christmas with the Kranks (2004) and Deck the Halls (2006). That’s kind of a nice gift in itself. Now, will these films actually become traditional Christmas fare with me? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t mind. For now, I’m settling in for the Sherlock Holmes marathon on TCM.