2002 to 2004: the Godawful Manchild Years.
Between 2002 and 2004 Hugh Grant was in four movies and in three of them he played a godawful manchild. And in one of them he plays the Prime Minister of Great Britain who is actually also secretly a godawful manchild. You’re just not supposed to think that.
Let’s get going.
Two Weeks Notice
In this film, Hugh Grant plays a godawful manchild. He is a rich property developer who hires a feisty, somewhat hippie-ish, deeply idealistic lawyer to be his personal counsel and winds up relying on her to make his every decision for him because he’s a godawful manchild. This is far more endearing that it has any right to be, because on a rational level I shouldn’t really find “he is immature and she puts up with it” to be a romantic dynamic. But I sort of kind of did? I think what it comes down to is that Hugh Grant is actually quite charming when he’s being hopeless and Sandra Bullock is quite charming all the time.
The film did lose me towards the end. Essentially the arc of the movie is: Hugh hires Sandra, Sandra realises that working for Hugh is taking over her life and stopping her doing the good and useful things she wants to be doing, so she gives him her two weeks’ notice (d’you see, just like the title of the film) and he starts trying to find a replacement for her, during which time they discover they are in wuv. The replacement, however, is an attractive redhead and Sandra Bullock gets debilitatingly, mind-meltingly jealous and insecure. And, the thing is, the film works fine if the story is “Sandra Bullock works for an immature guy, falls for him and has to balance her affection for Hugh Grant versus her desire to achieve the sorts of things she wants to achieve.” Nothing is actually gained by extending the plot to include “also she’s sad because the boy she likes likes another girl.” It’s an additional source of conflict that plays into gender stereotypes and really isn’t needed.
On a totally unrelated note, there’s a slightly odd scene about halfway through where Sandra Bullock gets a sudden attack of diarrhoea in the middle of a traffic jam and she and Hugh Grant have to get out their car and ask to use the toilet in somebody’s mobile home that happens to be a few cars in front of them. With hilarious consequences. As a big romantic gesture moment it’s somewhat unorthodox but also weirdly subversive because, honestly, I can’t think of a single other romantic comedy where the heroine’s need to do a massive poo has been a significant moment of emotional development. And, actually, it’s bizarrely refreshing to see a romantic movie from 2002 that admits women use toilets for something other than having moments of personal doubt or realisation.
Goodness of film: 3. It’s a completely bog standard romcom with some sweet moments, a surprisingly liberating approach to female bowel movements, the sort of slightly groan-inducing gender politics that you’d expect from the early 2000s, and a Donald Trump cameo.
Hugh Grantiness of film: 3.5. He’s a main character, he’s playing an early iteration on a character he’d play for the next several years, but he neither gets in a fight nor dances so it’s not quite worthy of a 4.
About a Boy
In this film, Hugh Grant plays a godawful manchild who is ambiguously rescued from his godawful manchild status by his relationship with an actual child—the “boy” about whom the film is. Incidentally the boy about whom the film is will go on to have a quite successful career, best known over here for being Tony from Skins, but probably best known in the US from supporting roles in Mad Max Fury Road and the more recent X-Men movies.
I might be completely off base here but I feel you can only really understand this phase in Hugh Grant’s career if you have a sense of where England was in the late 90s / early 2000s. Tony Blair was PM, the Millennium Dome hadn’t been a complete disaster, and there was this weird sense that Britain was cool (Britain is never actually cool but people in other countries had heard of Oasis and David Beckham). Which meant in the late 90s and early 2000s there were quite a lot of British films about Britain and Britishness made in Britain about Britain stuff. In particular, pretty much every novel Nick Hornby ever wrote got turned into a movie and, of course, the guy behind Four Weddings wrote an epic, multi-viewpoint love letter to Blair era Britain with Hugh Grant in the starring role. It’s all a bit cringe, really.
About A Boy is peak turn-of-the-millennium Britain. It’s got a Badly Drawn Boy soundtrack, it’s about a shifting sense of family, it’s sort of heart-warming and cynical in equal measure, it’s weirdly obsessed with consumerism like American Psycho, and there’s a particular emphasis on men redefining what masculinity means in a world where traditional gender roles are increasingly challenged.
tl;dr it’s kind of dated but I kind of like it.
Goodness of Film: 4. It’s a perfectly adequate film.
Hugh Grantiness of Film: 4.5. He’s in it all the time, he’s playing a recognisable Hugh Granty archetype but he gets to do a bit more with it. At this stage of his career, Hugh Grant is basically playing, well, godawful manchildren as we’ve established but they tend to be in the context of straight forwardly romantic stories (Hugh Grant is selfish and/or immature, he meets a nice woman, she helps him to be less selfish and/or immature, the end). Whereas, because About a Boy is, well, about a boy he shows a similar arc but can’t rely on established genre conventions to sell his emotional growth to the viewer. And, actually, there are quite a lot of beats in ABAB that could actually be lifted directly from a conventional romantic comedy (most notably the scene where Hugh Grant publicly humiliates himself by singing Killing Me Softly in front of a hall full of angry British teenagers—by the way, this film gets an extra half point of Hugh Grantiness just for that moment) but because they’re about human connections in general on this occasion they become more resonant and feel more nuanced.
PS – this film also stars Tonks from Harry Potter as a surly teenager.
In this film Hugh Grant plays godawful manchild who happens to be Prime Minister. So the last couple of entries have been quite short (by my standards) because I suspected I might have quite a lot to say about Love Actually. Because, when you get right down to it, Love Actually is actually six-to-eight very short films all stitched together with the slightly peculiar framing device of a children’s nativity concert and Heathrow.
Every time I’ve reviewed a Hugh Grant / Richard Curtis movie I’ve said that they derive their emotional impact by evoking a very specific idea of Britishness to which the vast majority of British people, in fact, have no access. Love Actually is better in some ways, worse in others. Pretty much everyone in it is still incredibly middle class—I was sitting down trying to work out if I could remember any working class characters who were in it and there’s only really Natalie. I mean, I initially thought of Colin God of Sex, who we first meet doing minimum wage work handing round canapes at a wedding and sandwiches at offices, but then I realised that while he might be working a fairly entry level job he’s also from a sufficiently affluent background that he can ditch everything and fly to America as part of a crazy plan to get laid without having to worry about where the money is coming from or if he’ll have somewhere to live when he gets back. Also his best mate (or at least the only friend he seems to have) appears to have a relatively high-powered job in the film industry.
On the plus side, there are actually Brits of colour in this one, with speaking roles. None of them are the centre of an actual story (the closest we get is Chiwetel Ejiofor who plays the guy that the girl that the guy in the unrequited love story is unrequitedly in love with is married to) but it is, at least, a bit more reflective of contemporary British society than Four Weddings or Notting Hill. Of course, probably the biggest gap between the lives of the principle characters in Love Actually and the life of the average Brit in 2003 is a rather higher proportion of Love Actually characters than actual Britons personally know the Prime Minister.
Apparently (and by “apparently” I mean “according to Wikipedia”) Love Actually was originally going to be two films, each about just one of the subplots that wound up in the final movie. I’m not sure which those plots were (although I’m 99% certain the Hugh Grant plot would have been one of them) but Richard Curtis got frustrated halfway through writing and decided to, instead, do an ensemble piece about different manifestations of love. And that’s basically what I think is great about Love Actually and also what I think is terrible about it.
Because the thing is, I do feel that there is a shortage of stories about love in the non-romantic sense. And obviously there are plenty of stories that sort of de facto are about love in the non-romantic sense in that buddycop movies are about affection between co-workers and war movies are about comradeship but you don’t normally get stories in any medium that are about non-romantic love in the way that romances, or romantic comedies, are about romantic love. And so the fact that Love Actually tries to be that is genuinely sort of remarkable.
Just to help clarify my own thoughts (I warned you this was going to get long) the types of love that the film tries to address are as follows: traditional romantic love (Hugh Grant and Martine Mccutcheon, Colin Firth and Lúcia Moniz, Martin Freeman and Joanna Page), unrequited love (Andrew Lincoln, Keira Knightley and Chiwetel Ejiofor), familial love (Laura Linney and whoever the heck plays her brother, Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, Liam Neeson and Thomas Brodie-Sangster), lost love (Liam Neeson and his dead wife), first love (Liam Neeson’s kid and Joanna, the girl from school), love gone stale (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman), love betrayed (Colin Firth again), love for one’s country (Hugh Grant and the cringe-worthy David Beckham speech), love as public recognition or adulation (Billy Mack, looking for a comeback at any cost), and the love of friends (Billy Mack and his fat manager).
Just looking back at that list is kind of exhausting. And it highlights the structural issue that makes some of the stories in the film work better than others. Because with around eight different narrative threads to develop and a run time of about 145 minutes no individual arc can have more than 18 minutes of screen time, which means everything gets very compressed. And I think the extent to which any given story works depends on the extent to which the individual viewer is willing to accept the compromises that have to be made for the sake of compression. I’m now going to go through these stories in no particular order and talk about the ones I think work well and the ones I think work not so well. This does mean that that 87.5% of what follows will be talking about things that aren’t Hugh Grant.
Colin God of Sex and the Body Doubles. I’m going to do these ones first and together because there’s not a lot of say. Colin’s arc is basically non-existent. It’s a gag so throwaway that, looking back, I didn’t even mention Colin Frizzle in my rundown of types of love featured in Love Actually. To give it its due, if you’re going to do an exploration of everything that gets the label of “love” attached to it then pure erotic love as embodied in Colin Frizzle (And He’s Got A Big Knob) is a thing that I can see why you’d want to include. Similarly, sweet couple meets by having charmingly ordinary conversations while pretending to fuck is quite a good joke. Admittedly it’s only one joke but John and Just Judy’s scenes all put together probably take up about three minutes of screen time. Although, and I admit that it’s taken me twenty years to ask this question, I do belatedly wonder who the heck is getting Martin Freeman to be their body double. I mean, I’m all for body positivity and Martin Freeman is great but, generally, when you see a nude scene in a movie the man does not look like Bilbo Baggins.
Jamie and Aurelia. If I had to take a punt on which other story was originally going to be a whole film it would be this one because there’s quite a lot going on here. Jamie starts off in one relationship, comes home to discover his partner is cheating on him with his brother, goes to France, writes a book, falls in love with a woman who doesn’t speak his language, comes back to England, learns Portuguese, then goes to wherever she is (it’s not clear whether they’re in France or Portugal at that point) and proposes to her. This, for me, is a good example of where the compression isn’t a huge issue. We are so trained to fill in the gaps in a romantic relationship that we never even bother to question how you can fall in love with a woman you can’t talk to when all she does is clean your house. Or, even more perplexingly, how you can fall in love with a man you can’t talk to who is also twice your age when all he does is be in a house while you are cleaning it. Their scenes together, because her dialogue is subtitled, give us a good sense of what Jamie and Aurelia are like individually, and even communicate to us how they might be compatible, but they don’t see what we get to see. She doesn’t know that he’s just said “there better not be eels in here” just before she says “try not to disturb the eels” and he doesn’t know she’s warned him about the eels just before he disturbs them. Their relationship is sold to the viewer entirely through second level coding and signalling. This works fine and I think tends to work best in the conventionally romantic relationships (with one exception, see later) because we know what those beats are supposed to be. Also Colin Firth is great and it’s nice to see him getting work.
Liam Neeson and his kid and his dead wife. I feel very ambivalent about this one. Like, obviously starting with a dead wife is fridgey as fuck and, thinking about it (and, as ever, I only have limited standing to talk about gender issues) it’s mildly problematic how few of the romantic love stories in this film are from a female viewpoint. The bereavement story is about a man with a dead wife, the first love story is about that man’s male child being in love with a girl who isn’t really in it, the unrequited love story is about a man who’s in love with his friend’s wife, Colin Firth’s story is about a man whose partner cheats on him and then falls in love with a woman who is given much less psychological interiority than he is, we only ever see Natalie from the PM’s point of view etc. etc. Anyway, like the straightforward boy-meets-girl stories you know the beats of a bereavement so well that the Liam Neeson arc is emotionally moving without really earning it. Pretty much the only thing we know about Joanna is that she was the sort of person who would ask for the Bay City Rollers to be played at her funeral which is, in some ways, a very skilful piece of writing because that lets you fill in a lot of details about who she was for yourself. But it’s also the bare minimum amount of characterisation you can really do. The parallelism between Liam Neeson grieving for his wife and Sam being sad because he likes a girl who he thinks doesn’t like him actually works really well—although Sam is an awful precocious moppet. There are a few really standout scenes in this story like the bit where Liam and his moppet re-enact Titanic together, reframing a conventionally romantic moment into something about familial love and emotional support (d’you see, because the film is about love actually…). I also really like that Liam Neeson is Sam’s stepdad and that Sam is obviously grieving for his mother but is handling that through focusing on kid stuff. This is probably the story that most suffers not from compressed storytelling but from the fact that the events of the film canonically take place in the three weeks leading up to Christmas 2003 which means that while, in a meta narrative sense, Liam Neeson has gone on a movie’s worth of emotional journey between his wife’s funeral and dating Claudia Schiffer in the final scene, in actual diegetic time it’s been less than a month. Dude is fucking cold.
Creepy Unrequited Love. This is a good example of how the workingness or not of the compressions depend a lot on your personal preferences, preconceptions and assumptions. From a certain point of view, I should probably have no more trouble with this bit of this film than I do with Eponine in Les Miserables. The thing is, because of the way it’s compressed and because of the way it’s framed, it comes across to me as super creepy and in need of a lot more surrounding material to not be creepy. Like seriously, dude spent the whole of his best friend’s wedding following the bride with a camera and doing loving, lingering close ups of her face and body. What is he planning on doing with that footage? And when she comes over it’s like right there on the shelf so he’s obviously been watching it. Oh my God, is he cranking? Is it his crank bank? And her reaction to finding his weird stalker masturbation video is to be momentarily surprised and then flattered. And then when he shows up at her door with passive aggressive signs and fake carol singers and a request that she actually lie to her husband (having presumably like just got back from honeymoon) she legit kisses him. I cannot even with any of this. And I think part of the problem is that unrequited love is a subtler thing to evoke than straightforward romantic love, which means you need very clear signals about what kind of story you’re telling. And similarly there’s no really a way that story can end that isn’t cue cards on a doorstep because, what’s the alternative? He just sort of gets over it? I mean, let’s be clear, in real life that is an alternative and it is the correct alternative, and in a longer film it would be an alternative you could genuinely explore. But with eighteen minutes of screen time “say it’s carol singers” is all you’ve got space for. Even then, I don’t think the compression and simplification would be so problematic if “stalking is love” wasn’t such a well-established and harmful trope. But it is so it is.
Problematic Mental Health Love. So one of the few stories in this film that’s properly from the point of view of a female character is the story of Sarah the American, her long-term crush on Karl the Enigmatic Head of Design, and the mysterious calls she keeps getting on her mobile phone. Sarah, and her phone, can often be seen in the background of other scenes and it’s only when she gets together with Enigmatic Karl (who, somewhat surprisingly for a graphic designer, has a body like a Greek god) that we learn what’s going on. What’s going being that her profoundly mentally ill brother keeps telephoning her from what appears to be a psychiatric facility because he has constant delusions in which people are trying to kill him or he needs to be exorcised. Again, more subtle story, more lost in compression. I honestly can’t tell what I’m supposed to take away from this one and I feel like that’s a matter of incoherence rather than complexity. And in fact is probably to do with my having relatively strong opinions about mental health issues, which I suspect do not align with the opinions of the writers of this film (if they have any). Generally, Love Actually presents love as an uncomplicatedly positive force, even Creepy Guy’s Creepy Stalker Love for Keira Knightley within the structure of the film is framed as a good thing (which is presumably why she doesn’t immediately confiscate the wedding tape and vomit on his face). By which standards, I think we have to assume that Sarah’s willingness to drop everything no matter where she is and what she’s doing to take a potentially endless series of phone calls from her profoundly unwell brother is a good and loving choice, even though it is also portrayed as meaning that she can’t have anything else that she wants. The thing is, there’s one line that makes me question that. While Sarah is trying to get it on with Enigmatic Karl the phone rings once and she answers it, then it rings a second time and Karl goes to stop her answering it, saying “will it make him better?” Now, I am not a mental health professional and I appreciate there are a range of approaches you can take to this kind of situation but I am very much with Karl on this one. Within the context of the film, it is clear that Sarah’s brother’s illness has a significant negative effect on her life. There’s a scene in which it makes him actually attack her. And even leaving that aside the implication seems strongly to be that she has to be constantly aware that he might call any time for an indefinite length of time and she will just have to deal with that no matter what else she might be doing. That is not sustainable and it is not healthy for her and (and, again, not a mental professional and, of course, this character only exists in 18 minutes of footage in a film from 2003) isn’t healthy for him either. In fact, the thing the most confuses me about this plot arc, watching the film as my present day self with my present day level of knowledge, is why this man who is definitely in a mental health facility and who definitely is sufficiently ill that he requires constant supervision and might even pose a physical threat to himself and others is allowed unrestricted access to a telephone. As far as I know, that’s just bad practice.
Just Before Our Love Got Lost. This is probably my favourite arc (if you don’t count the Bill Nighy one which gets bonus points for being Bill Nighy) and is probably the one I consider the most successful, mostly because it’s so petty and shit. I mean, I appreciate that it’s laddish, boorish and point missing to observe that Alan Rickman doesn’t even get a shag out of it but I sort of think it’s relevant that he doesn’t even get a shag out of it. Basically, this is a man who compromises however many years of marriage (it’s not made clear in the film but they’ve got two kids of school age) for literally nothing except a moment of feeling desired. It’s simultaneously the most pathetic and most understandable thing in the world. And I think I find it especially fascinating because of the way it plays with our cultural assumptions about the way men, women, sex and relationships work. To grossly oversimplify a complicated bit of sociology, conventional culture has a tendency to treat sex as something men “get” from women by giving them something of value in exchange, be that marriage or jewels or emotional commitment (which, of course, conventional culture assumes that men themselves do not want or get anything out of). So the fact that the film frames the act of giving a gift as possessing, in and of itself, a level of intimacy that amounts to betrayal is almost subversive. And perhaps I’m just reading a lot into the story that isn’t necessarily there but I also find it fascinating that Alan Rickman buys Mia a golden necklace, which is something he’d never think to buy for his wife, but he buys his wife a Joni Mitchell CD which is actually, when you think about it, a more thoughtful thing to give somebody. And so the necklace become a pure and ultimately meaningless symbol: it’s the sort of thing that we are told we are supposed to give to (or expect to receive from) people we are romantically interested in even though in reality it’s no more thoughtful or less generic than the scarves Emma Thompson mocks Alan Rickman for buying her every year. By a similar token, Alan Rickman doesn’t actually intend to cheat on his wife with Mia but the idea of being desired by somebody much younger and more conventionally attractive than he is is enticing to him in the same way that the idea that being given a gold necklace is enticing to Emma Thompson. The tragedy, essentially, is that he materially damages his marriage by buying a gift that means nothing for a woman he’s not actually interested in. It’s all fantasy but the hurt is very real. And I’m making myself sad just recapping it. Anyway, this is all really works well for me. It successfully says something that has a strong emotional resonance and doesn’t often get said, at least not in this kind of movie.
The actual Hugh Grant bit. Not my favourite. And it’s never been my favourite but it’s even less my favourite when viewed in a post #metoo world. So the summary here is that Hugh Grant has somehow been elected Prime Minister despite seeming in no way qualified for the job (unless you count being floppy and posh which is how British Prime Ministers tend to get elected) and a member of his domestic staff is a pretty cockney woman called Natalie who is played by Martine Mccutcheon. There follows a relatively straight romcom plot that, when condensed, is all kinds of wrong in all kinds of ways. Ignoring for a moment the bizarrely incessant jokes about how fat she is there’s the fact that the basic beats of their relationship are: they fancy each other, she gets sexually harassed by the president of the United States, Hugh Grant get angry at her about it, gives the aforementioned cringe-worthy speech about Harry Potter and David Beckham’s feet which is unironically praised as awesome and patriotic by every other character who mentions it, asks for her to be reassigned so she’s not working with him, and then receives a Christmas card in which she apologies for being sexually harassed and tells him how into him she is. And, look, all of the actors in this story are fine but, no, no no no, no. Although Hugh Grant does dance in this subplot, which is it’s only redeeming feature.
Billy Mack. My second favourite arc in the whole thing is Bill Nighy as Billy Mack, a washed up, ex-heroin addict and faded rockstar, pushing for a comeback by doing one of those awful Christmas signals that comes out every year and tries to crowbar a Christmas theme into an existing song. Mainly this is played for laughs with Bill Nighy giving zero fucks and admitting everything is terrible, and even performing naked on TV. Bbut it ends on this weirdly moving note where, having spent the entire film desperate to claw back the trappings of fame and moaning constantly about having to hang out with his fat manager (there’s quite a lot of fat shaming in Love Actually), he realises in the end that because said manager is basically the only person with whom he’s had an adult relationship he is, strangely enough, the person who means most to him in the whole world and therefore who he wants to be with at Christmas. Then they get pissed and watch porn. Ten out of ten. Would watch Bill Nighy strip again.
Goodness of film: I know this is a copout I use a lot but I’m genuinely not sure this is measurable. I think the Alan Rickman / Emma Thompson and Bill Nighy plots are at least a 4 or a 5. I think the Creepy Stalker, Problematic Mental Health and Hugh Grant bits are probably a 1 or a 2. I suppose it comes out as about a 3 overall? It’s almost like these numbers are invented and meaningless.
Hugh Grantiness of film: 3.5. I was going to give this a 3 but it’s a Richard Curtis movie in which Hugh Grant plays a slightly awkward guy with slightly manchildy qualities (who is somehow running the country). Even though he’s only on screen for about 12 minutes the film is weirdly infused with a kind of essence of Hugh Grant that makes it a much Grantier experience than it has any right to be.
Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason
In this film, Hugh Grant plays a godawful manchild named Daniel Cleaver who he previously played in the original Bridget Jones movie. And because I spent four thousand words talking about Love Actually I should probably try to keep this short. So. Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason has literally all of the plot beats of the first Bridget Jones movie just … again. It even has another scene in which Colin Firth fights Hugh Grant badly and, seriously, I would watch Colin Firth fight Hugh Grant badly for a whole movie. It is the best thing.
There’s also a sort of actually kind of really racist sequence where Bridget goes to Thailand and gets put in a Thai women’s prison where all the prisoners are really interested in her love life, despite the fact that they definitely and explicitly have way bigger problems than she does. I don’t have anything like standing to talk about the portrayal of Thailand, Thai women or Thai prisons in this film except to say that, as a white guy from England, my awareness that I was not being especially asked to think about this place or these people as having any reality or agency of their own made me profoundly uncomfortable.
On top of that, there’s this really weird thing where the film is very specifically set 6 to 8 weeks after Bridget and Mark Darcy get together but a lot of the emotional beats seem to assume a much more established relationship. Like at the end of roughly the first act there’s a bit where she thinks she might be pregnant and her first reaction is that she “couldn’t possibly be lucky enough” to get a boyfriend and a baby in so short a period of time and then, when Mark finds her with a pregnancy test, he is also thrilled at the idea that they could be having a child together. I mean, I’m not judging and I do understand that for some people the desire to have children is very strong but you have been with this guy for 8 weeks. And then the act two conflict comes about when they go to see his parents and the parents ask if they’re thinking about getting married and Mark says no, which Bridget seems to view as this epic betrayal even though, I repeat, you have been with this guy for 8 weeks. And Mark, why are you now saying you’re not certain if you’re even considering marriage when two seconds ago you were overjoyed at the possibility of having a child together? And, obviously, it’s fine to have a child and not be married but it seems like what Mark is saying, and what Bridget is upset about, is that he’s not sure about the long term future of their relationship. And, well, last I checked kids are kind of a long term deal. Like, those things can stick around for months.
tl;dr It’s basically the same movie as Bridget Jones but to add conflict and structure to a story that they’ve already told they need to add some elements that felt, to me, some combination of forced, implausible or racist.
Goodness of film: 2. I mean, Colin Firth fights Hugh Grant badly it. And that’s worth a point on its own.
Hugh Grantiness of film: 2. To be honest, the only reason Daniel Cleaver is even in this film is because he was in the first one. He doesn’t really do much, he’s randomly got a new job so that he can, once again, be professionally associated with Bridget like he is in the first movie, basically it all feels very going through the motions.