Having recently been underwhelmed and baffled by Garry Marshall’s latest flick, New Year’s Eve, a film that was full to the brim with A-Listers doing nothing for two hours, it got me thinking. The Brit-flick Love Actually, happens to be one of my favourite films. The two are very similar in style and both are set within the same festive season. And yet I loved one and disliked the other. It made me wonder: what did Love Actually do right, that New Year’s Eve didn’t?
New Year’s Eve‘s director, Garry Marshall admits to Love Actually being his inspiration for the film and on paper it sounds like a good idea. Rope-in a large ensemble of stars and use multiple sub-plots to tell their individual tales. It’s a clever ploy. When it works.
The technical name for this type of movie, one with multiple stories woven together into one feature, is the portmanteau or anthology film. They are often based around a significant theme or event. For example, Christmas, love and New Year, or in the case of The Player, a murder.
A-listers seem to love attaching their names to portmanteau movies because a) it is a credit for their filmography, and b) as a small role they can wrap it up quickly. That said, the amount of talent who sign on the dotted line is still astonishing. In the last two years Marshall’s two portmanteau’s (the other being Valentine’s Day) have starred the likes of Julia Roberts, Hilary Swank and Robert De Niro. All actors with credible careers.
The risk with throwing so many of dominant personalities together is, two things can happen: the film is outstandingly brilliant, or utterly abysmal. The actors will either gel or clash. 1932’s Grand Hotel, for example is brilliant and Oscar acknowledged.
In terms of Love Actually and New Year’s Eve, the former has a credible execution (and was nominated for a Golden Globe), whereas the latter sadly doesn’t. The thing is, an actor is only as good as the material they are working with, and the script for New Year’s Eve was rushed and clunky, the dialogue was cheesy and written to aid the transitions necessary for the many narrative strands rather than a believable plot. On the other hand it felt like a little more care had been taken to weave the stories in Love Actually together without it appearing contrived.
We have to bear in mind that these two films were made in two different countries with very different audiences in mind.
Love Actually‘s predominantly British cast is less distracting, because Hollywood stars are just that – stars with a reputation that precedes them, rather than actors. Therefore when we go and see New Year’s Eve, we don’t see Kim, the mum with a rebellious 15-year-old, we see Sarah Jessica Parker, and laugh openly when it’s revealed she is the ‘sister’ of Zac Efron, because … did they seriously expect the audience to go with that?
In fact, the only actors I wasn’t distracted by in New Year’s Eve were Lea Michele, who basically plays her Glee role a few years into the future, and Michelle Pfeiffer. She gives such a convincing portrayal of a mousy middle aged woman, that you forget who she is. Everyone else? Nope. That is definitely Hilary Swank in charge of the Times Square ball dropping at midnight. It is certainly Jon Bon Jovi performing. It’s a game of ‘Spot the A-Lister’.
At the time of Love Actually‘s release in 2003, many non-British viewers may not have known who half the actors were. Although Alan Rickman, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson were well known, they are lower key than their Hollywood peers. This is one of the main reasons why I think the film works. The less you know about the actor, the more you believe in their portrayal.
Parallels and Character
The parallels between the two films are quite striking. Both open with a heart-felt narration from a figure within the film. Hugh Grant speaks about his belief in love over hate, while Hilary Swank talks about the magic of a New Year and the hope it brings. Cue montage of scenes of preparation for Christmas and celebrations in Times Square.
Love Actually has two more sub-plots than New Year’s Eve‘s eight. I was genuinely surprised when I counted them up, because Love Actually feels like it has fewer. The sub-plots vary in length in Love Actually, unlike it’s US love child. The amusing sexual tension between John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page) as they work as naked stand-ins on a film set is justifiably given limited screen time compared to Colin Firth’s pursuit of his Portuguese love, Aurelia.
Problematically, New Year’s Eve tried to give equal screen time to everyone. There wasn’t time to concentrate on any one story. The film makers were so keen to make sure Katherine Heigl had as much to do as Sarah Jessica Parker, that plots were either drawn out too far or cut too short.
Both films share a lot of similar characters, like the unexpected brother and sister combination I mentioned earlier. In Love Actually the siblings are Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson.
A rock star is added into the UK and US mixes too. The difference is New Year’s Eve brought in a real singer (Bon Jovi), whereas Love Actually hired Bill Nighy to pretend. Bon Jovi may as well have played himself because I didn’t believe his name was Jenson at any point. You go along with Bill Nighy as ageing rocker Billy Mack though, and the character is much more interesting for it.
The obligatory adolescent couples are also present to appeal to kids. Sadly, Abigail Breslins’ Hailey in New Year’s Eve comes across as a brat when she runs away from her mother to kiss a boy at midnight, whereas Thomas Sangster’s Sam in Love Actually was endearing in his pursuit of his crush, Joanna.
Love Actually is by no means a perfect film. It is too long, drags in places and lack realism in parts, like when ten-year-old Joanna is about to board a plane to America and she follows after Sam to give him a kiss goodbye, clearly holding up the plane, before she runs back through security. Even in fiction, that is just not believable.
New Year’s Eve does have its moments of hope too. Sofia Vergara’s performance is pretty funny. The moments were too few and far between though. It seems like both films made a check list of classic romance plots and presented them to the audience with very different results. It’s a shame – Garry Marshall made Pretty Woman! So, when he’s good, he’s good.
Let us hope that, should he decide to make yet another holiday portmanteau, he rectifies the mistakes in his first two attempts. Or perhaps hires Richard Curtis to write it. Otherwise it will be yet another embarrassing mark on more A-List résumés.