Love Actually

on November 07, 2003 by Christine James
Love is a many-splendored thing, but this film could have done with more of the splendor and not so much of the many. Focusing on a number of couples who are connected incidentally to each other, the London-set "Love Actually" strives for Paul Thomas Anderson but achieves Richard Curtis times nine or so, which is a little much--yet, at the same time, it's not enough. Curtis, in his directing debut, has come up with another so-close-but-not-quite rom-com to add to his pantheon of popular but only superficially satisfying scripting efforts, including "Four Weddings and Funeral," "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "Notting Hill." Would that his bigscreen work was more "Blackadder" and less "Mr. Bean" (both of which are also on his curriculum vitae).

Each relationship in this film represents a different kind and level of love. There's the Prime Minister and the Tea Girl (Hugh Grant and Martine McCutcheon) who experience love at first sight, resulting the former's secret dance of joy through the rooms of 10 Downing Street to the tune of the Pointer Sisters' "Jump," the final and most enthusiastic gyrations of which are inevitably observed by an amused employee. Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson portray fond but uneventful long-married love, while Alan Rickman and the sensuous Heike Makatsch play out illicit ardor alongside that story strand. A recent widower (Liam Neeson) and his wise-beyond-his-years teddy-bear of a stepson (Thomas Sangster), supposedly grief-stricken by the loss of the boy's mother, form their bond while also encouraging each other to seek romance with their respective dream girls (Dad's is played by Claudia Schiffer, which negates the mourning period). A writer (Colin Firth) and his dryly witty housekeeper (Lucia Moniz) fall for each other despite a language barrier. Two stand-ins working on a pornography shoot (Martin Freeman and Joanna Page) engage in an incongruously polite and shy courtship. Some guy (Andrew Lincoln) falls for his best friend's new bride (Keira Knightley) despite having barely exchanged words with her (hey, it's Keira Knightley; 'nuff said). An ex-pat American (Laura Linney) is infatuated with a co-worker (Rodrigo Santoro) but familial obligations complicate the situation. And a randy sandwich salesman (Kris Marshall) who's turned lust into a defining personality trait finds himself in a fantasy scenario that doesn't fit in with the film's theme but is people-pleasing in a wacky comic-relief way, so in it stays.

Stealing the show is the lean, leathery and twinkle-eyed Bill Nighy as a has-been rock star trying to make a comeback with a sappy Christmas song who shakes things up when he refuses to play the PR game and instead gives deliciously devilish off-the-cuff interviews that rocket him to infamy. His connection to the movie's motif is his beleaguered manager (Gregor Fisher), who has shown true friendship by sticking with him through the highs and lows. Rowan Atkinson also has a fun bit as a store clerk who's exasperatingly competent, for a change; a little nod of his near the end conveys a warmly subtle element of surprise the rest of the film could have used more of.

While it's all appealing on the surface, none of the love connections are particularly inspiring. The fact that some of them don't work out is supposed to layer the proceedings with depth, but because this isn't counterbalanced by even one pairing of soulmates who seem truly destined to be together, the feelings of soaring high-spiritedness promised in the opening moments are flattened. The film never lives up to the euphoric goodwill of its wedding scene, in which friends of the just-married couple surprise them by spontaneously producing guitars, trombones &c. from behind the pews to serenade them with a rendition of The Beatles' "All You Need is Love." For that moment, you feel the truth and optimism of the lyric. But as the stories and characters unfold, no one seems to actually have this kind of support system. There's promise for so many magical, meaningful moments between husband and wife, brother and sister, friend and companion, suitor and inamorata, but it's cutesy glibness more than love that's all around. Starring Hugh Grant, Martine McCutcheon, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Liam Neeson and Bill Nighy. Directed and written by Richard Curtis. Produced by Duncan Kenworthy, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner. A Universal release. Romantic comedy. Rated R for sexuality, nudity and language. Running time: 1

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