On a crisp morning in the waning days of a punishing year, Chris Matthews sits in his office at MSNBC’s Washington studios, sharing his thoughts about “the politics of life,” as he puts it.
It’s all about “your willingness to stand up for the people you care about,” the veteran pundit says. “And in the end, that’s all that really matters. Are you going to stand up for your people or not? Are you going to stand up for somebody you love or not? And if you’re not, what are you worth?”
He’s talking, of course, about “Love Actually.”
Yes, that “Love Actually” — the 2003 British-inflected romantic comedy that’s become a Christmas-season cult favorite. The one with Hugh Grant as the prime minister who dances to the Pointer Sisters. The one where the little boy sprints through the airport. The one where the guy professes his love for his best friend’s wife via giant flash cards.
Chris Matthews, one of Washington’s great talkers, loves “Love Actually,” and he loves to talk about “Love Actually.” So much so that HBO late-night host John Oliver called him out for it, with a video mash-up of all the times Matthews has managed to name-drop it on air. (“Here’s a clip from the great movie, ‘Love Actually.’ ” “That incredible movie, ‘Love Actually. . .” “One of my favorite movies.” “My favorite movie.”)
God bless the “Hardball” host for taking a brave stance, because “Love Actually” is a rather controversial movie. Some people love it. Some people hate it. Some people hate that they secretly love it, and watch it every year, cringing a little even as they swoon.
As a loud-and-proud champion of the Richard Curtis epic — which tells nine interwoven stories over 2 hours 16 minutes — Matthews has a high tolerance for its fanciful sentimentality. He explains why it’s exactly what we need these days:
“You have to have optimism. How can you care about a country if you’re not a romantic?” he says. “The people who will save this country — they’re romantics.”
So let’s settle in for a special screening of his five favorite scenes:
It might be the least realistic, most satisfying news conference in modern film. After David, the prime minister, meets with the visiting U.S. president (played as a crude lech by Billy Bob Thornton), he stands in front of the press to decry America’s political bullying. Of course, he’s really outraged because the president made a sleazy move on Natalie, the secretary David secretly pines for.
“I watch it all the time,” Matthews says of the scene. “I think I’ve shown it here [on air] before.” He sees Thornton’s character as a repugnant hybrid of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — “the worst idea of an American president,” he says. “And he messed with that girl that [David] really likes.” Matthews shakes his head indignantly.
Matthews loves everything about this scene, from Grant (“he’s amazing!”) to Thornton (“Isn’t he great? I hear he watches ‘Hardball,’ ”) to the adoring faces of the prime minister’s staff. Why does it work? “Because we love courage. We love guts under pressure. And we like the fact that [David] was chivalrous,” Matthews says. “He was looking out for his girl, and that’s what it was about. It’s great stuff.”
This one is a heartache, and not just because it features the late Alan Rickman, one of the many crushing losses of 2016. His character, Harry, decides to buy a pricey necklace for his seductive secretary even as his wife hovers nearby — and the maddening salesman, played by Rowan Atkinson, takes forever to wrap the gift.
Could we be quite quick? Rickman snaps, and Matthews laughs: “By now he hates this guy.” He digs the subtly suspenseful score. “It’s sort of an Italian kind of music,” he says. “It’s all just delightful stuff.”
The scene’s success lies in its balance of humor and heartbreak, Matthews says. “This poor guy is taken up by what’s going to be a tragedy in his life. But this scene is comic relief.”
Because “Love Actually” is about all kinds of love, Matthews is particularly fond of the bromance between the Billy Idol-ish rock star played by Bill Nighy and his frumpy Scottish manager (Gregor Fisher), on display as the star shuns a lavish Elton John holiday partyto hang with his pal instead.
“The straight romance between Bill Nighy and his manager was just spectacular — to see straight male friendship like that,” Matthews says. “I thought that was great. I also thought that [Nighy] was just a showstopper in the whole movie.” As Nighy and Fisher awkwardly embrace, Matthews smiles and chuckles. “They’re unbelievable.”
Then reality interrupts: As the scene ends, Matthews’s staff gently reminds him that he has a busy day, and things really need to wrap up here. But there are still two scenes to watch, and this is one of his favorite movies, and —
“Let’s watch them anyway!” he says. “Let’s watch them!” So we do.
True, Colin Firth’s character, Jamie — the writer reeling from heartbreak after his girlfriend and brother have an affair — doesn’t really know the Portuguese housemaid, Aurelia, whom he met and fell in love with after fleeing to France to nurse his wounds and write a book. But Romeo didn’t really know Juliet, either, eh? And the climactic scene between Jamie and Aurelia, wherein he bursts into the restaurant where she’s waitressing and proposes in halting Portuguese, has strong echoes of Shakespeare, Matthews says.
“You see up there,” he says, gesturing as Aurelia glides across the restaurant’s top floor. “There has to be an upper deck — it’s Romeo and Juliet! You see this, how it’s done? It’s the balcony scene!”
Then Matthews, uncharacteristically, falls silent, because full attention must be paid to Firth and his adorably incompetent proposal. And don’t think of trying to end the screening too abruptly. “Not yet!” Matthews cries when we reach for the “stop” button, because Firth is still kissing his lady love, and then he’s kissing his future in-laws, and you just have to watch this scene to the very end.
“Who doesn’t like Colin Firth?” Matthews says, satisfied.
From the post-9/11 perspective, this might be the most unfathomable scene of all: Young Sam, played by 12-year-old Thomas Brodie-Sangster, is determined to tell his crush how he feels about her before she boards a plane, so he leads security officers on a wild chase through the airport.
Chris Matthews loves this kid. Chris Matthews was this kid: “Every guy remembers the girl he was nuts over when he was about 8 or 9 years old,” he says. “It’s the girl you sit next to and you look at her and think about her all through class. . . . It’s all in your head, always. That romance is real, and it never goes away. It’s always perfect.”
And then, suddenly, Matthews is somewhere else, back in time with the little girl he once adored, the one he stood beside as they sang together in a school play. He leans back in his leather chair and starts singing softly — Way down, way down by the streeeeeam, how sweet it will seeeeeeem — lines from the long-ago pop standard “Tonight You Belong to Me.”
But he’s back in the present moment when the scene starts playing, leaning forward in his chair. “Make your move, buddy,” Matthews says to the boy on the screen, and the string music swells as the child leaps over the head of the unsuspecting guard, and the movie’s great emotional crescendo is underway.
Matthews smiles slightly as the scene ends. “You’re getting me all misted up here.”