A roundly entertaining romantic comedy, “Love Actually” is still nearly as cloying as it is funny. Grandly conceived by contemporary British genre master Richard Curtis as a mosaic of love stories that collectively stress the primacy of amour even in difficult times, this doggedly cheery confection persists in going overboard with smiles, hugs, kisses and musical reassurances that all you need is love. But its cheeky wit, impossibly attractive cast and sure-handed professionalism are beguiling all the same, qualities which, along with its all-encompassing romanticism, should make this a highly popular early holiday attraction for adults on both sides of the pond.
After stellar TV work on the likes of “Not the Nine O’Clock News,” “Blackadder” and “Mr. Bean,” the New Zealand-born Curtis emerged as Blighty’s most eminent commercial screenwriter with “The Tall Guy,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” He now moves confidently into the director’s chair. For what it’s worth, he gets both the wedding and the funeral out of the way early on in “Love Actually.”
Set in a spectacularly decorous London in the five weeks running up to Christmas, pic makes a very big point of always looking on the bright side, with the opening narration positioning even 9/11 as an event that occasioned an outpouring of love, however distressed.
To be sure, any number of the characters here have to deal with frustration, disappointment, loss and pain, but in almost every case these feelings are transitory and non-depressing. The characters scoot from misery or emotional paralysis to bliss in the time it takes to change clothes, or whenever they discover that someone is interested in them. And in a move designed to give men some special satisfaction at a film many will be dragged to by women, rarely have so many extraordinarily attractive women come on so eagerly to so many guys in a movie not about athletes or rock stars.
Showing no strain putting as many balls as he wishes in the air and keeping them aloft, Curtis deftly introduces his ensemble: Drug-ravaged old wild man pop star Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) “looking for a comeback at any price” by cutting a sappy lyrics-altered Christmas version of “Love Is All Around;” newlyweds Juliet (Keira Knightley) and Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), with the latter’s best friend Mark (Andrew Lincoln) secretly in love with the bride; a bachelor Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) taking up residence at 10 Downing St. and becoming instantly smitten by young tea girl Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), and the PM’s sister, efficient housewife and mother Karen (Emma Thompson), whose husband Harry (Alan Rickman) may be induced to stray by the provocations of his foxy secretary Mia (Heike Makatsch).
Harry has an employee, Sarah (Laura Linney), who’s harbored a helpless crush on shy dreamboat Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) for nearly three years; also feeling the pangs of unrequited love is 10-year-old Sam (Thomas Sangster), whose mother has just died and who confesses to step-dad Daniel (Liam Neeson) his anguish over a girl in school; jilted writer Jamie (Colin Firth) retreats to the south of France, where he begins a linguistically-challenged romance with Portuguese housekeeper Aurelia (singer Lucia Moniz); movie stand-ins John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page) are painfully reticent with one another even though they spend their days together simulating sex in the nude, and then there’s Colin (Kris Marshall), a gawky, enthusiastic lad who is convinced that the answer to his dating woes lies in America.
Woven together, and occasionally intersecting, so effectively that only one of the strands wears out its welcome — the John and Judy interlude is archly drawn and doesn’t go anywhere — the vignettes are composed mostly of comic and emotional highlights, with no down time. Due to the inspired concept and casting, the wonderful passages featuring Grant as the debonairly rumpled new head of state are bound to be the most remarked upon, especially in Britain. Specifically positioned as the next leader after Tony Blair, Grant’s PM gets off some sharp zingers at his predecessor and, in a scene designed specifically to appeal to the home market, boldly stands up to the arrogant U.S. President (Billy Bob Thornton), a cowboy with an interest in young ladies to rival that of Bill Clinton.
However, the Prime Minister reveals a Clintonesque side as well in his obsession with Natalie. As neatly played by former pop tart and “My Fair Lady” McCutcheon, the self-professedly overweight character bears a resemblance to Monica Lewinsky that cannot have been unintentional. Dismayed by the distraction Natalie presents, Grant’s PM brings down the house when he peers up at an office portrait of Margaret Thatcher and asks, “Did you have this kind of problem? Oh, of course you did, you saucy minx.”
Another highlight is Nighy’s sly portrait of the seen-and-done-it-all rocker so self-amused and unconcerned with what anyone thinks that he can’t help but tell the rude truth at all times. At once leathery and pickled, theater and TV vet Nighy has all the moves down as a sort of tidier Keith Richards for whom reclaimed success is just one giant and unexpected lark.
In their own ways, other storylines become engaging as well. Although Neeson’s Daniel seems overly anxious to move on from his wife’s death, and he much too readily uses sexual profanity with his little stepson (a trait off-puttingly shared here by other adults around pre-pubescent kids), Sangster is so winning as the lovelorn but resourceful Sam that spending time with the two of them is more than pleasant. Marshall is a joy as the enthusiastic bloke who hits the babe jackpot the moment he arrives in the U.S. The nervous attraction between Jamie and Aurelia, who don’t comprehend a word they’re exchanging but understand one another perfectly all the same, is expertly played for laughs as well as heart tugs, and die-hard romantics will fall hook, line and sinker for the very public climax to their courtship.
Portraying more melancholy emotions are Thompson’s Karen, who succinctly captures the controlled anxiety of a woman who senses her marriage might be fracturing before her eyes, and Linney’s Sarah, who’s selflessly boxed herself into a place where romance is truly impossible. Overall, the cast is outrageously attractive playing characters almost uniformly hot to trot at a moment’s notice.
Still, as the episodes are stacked into a mile-high love sandwich, the film comes to seem too insistent, too calculated, too much the cheerleader for a cause that doesn’t need such relentless persuasion. The grand finale, which brings most of the characters — and hundreds of others –together in a Heathrow arrivals hall, socks over the picture’s overriding theme in a way that will send mainstream auds out in a happy mood.
Curtis has presided over the creation of a package that feels as luxuriously appointed and expertly tooled as a Rolls-Royce. Michael Coulter’s resplendent lensing makes the beautiful people and terrific locations look even more fabulous than they do already, a cause aided by Jim Clay’s production design and Joanna Johnston’s costumes. Editor Nick Moore helps balance the storylines with keen senses of rhythm and proportion. Composer Craig Armstrong and music supervisor Nick Angel make catchy contributions that occasionally become overbearing. Pic has an invigorating and teasing sense of Anglo-American interplay that ranges from the political to the sexual.
“Love Actually” was presented at the Toronto Film Festival in September, but was screened on digital video as a work in progress, with score, sound mix and credits incomplete.