Film Reviews: Wednesday, November 5, 2003
Love Actually
Starring Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Colin Firth, Laura Linney, and Bill Nighy. Written and directed by Richard Curtis. Rated R.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Coupling

Despite its genuine laughs, Love Actually is an overdose of holiday cheer.

By KRISTIAN LIN

OK, I have to confess. I didnít love Love Actually, actually. And I feel like the most rotten, miserable human being in the world for saying so. Thatís not a feeling that Iím naturally given to. I usually have no qualms about expressing disdain for a movie that charms everybody else in the audience. But this one I feel bad about.

Part of the reason is because this holiday-themed piece is by Richard Curtis. You may not know his name, but odds are youíve seen a movie that heís scripted: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jonesís Diary. I daresay that when many Americans think of contemporary Britain, they think of the cozy, harmlessly eccentric, multicultural country from his movies. His popularity is no surprise; heís a virtuoso of comic embarrassment, and his plush, middlebrow romantic comedies are consistently better than any of the ones that Hollywood comes up with (for what thatís worth). His films have all been directed by different people. Here he takes the helm himself for the first time, and he does an acceptable job structuring this ambitious, sprawling 135-minute work stuffed with characters and intersecting plotlines.

All those characters, though, turn out to be problematic. In his previous films, he had to bring only one couple together. Here heís got lots of them, and the multiplicity of happy endings turns the whole thing monotonous. Oh, he tries to vary some of them. The one about the guy (Andrew Lincoln) whoís in love with his best friendís new wife (Keira Knightley) is supposed to end on a bittersweet note, and the one about an American office worker (Laura Linney) whose attempt at romance is thwarted by her institutionalized brotherís demands is supposed to be downright sad. Curtis, however, isnít tough-minded enough to handle these stories, and they emerge with the same tone as the others. Elsewhere, too many of the plots are either played straight (Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson as a married couple having some ill-defined trouble) or arenít as funny as Curtis seems to think (Colin Firth as a writer who falls for his non-English-speaking Portuguese housemaid while vacationing in Provence). The filmmakerís in Robert Altmanís territory, and his one great advantage over Altman ó that heís a hell of a lot funnier ó is lessened considerably.

Thankfully, it isnít entirely negated. The movie has more than enough genuinely funny plotlines to justify the price of your ticket, and the actors involved in them come off the best. Hugh Grant plays the new British prime minister, and while heís on familiar ground, he carries off the role with an unpretentious good humor that you wish more real-life politicians had. Rowan Atkinson, a longtime Curtis collaborator, gives the movie a stiff jolt in his two scenes as a hyper-meticulous jewelry store clerk. Best of all is Bill Nighy, last seen as a lord of the undead in Underworld, portraying a washed-up pop star who records a Christmas version of ďLove Is All AroundĒ and turns it into a hit by telling everyone how horrible it is. (ďRevel in the crassness of the moment when we try to squeeze an extra syllable into the fourth line!Ē he tells a radio interviewer.)

The trouble is that there isnít more of this. In his other movies, Curtis counteracted his mushier tendencies by conjuring up outrageous comic situations. He does some of that here ó notably at the beginning, when Grantís eloquent voice-over about the messages of love that came out of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 is immediately followed by Nighyís train wreck of a recording session ó but too much of the film lacks that kind of balance. The movie needed more plotlines about laughs instead of love, like the terrific one about the waiter (Kris Marshall) who decides to solve his inability to get laid by going to America, a place he imagines as full of hot chicks who will fall all over him because of his cute English accent.

While that story works because Curtis pulls a bait-and-non-switch tactic on us, the others suffer from his increasing predictability. His characters all share the same taste in twee vintage Britpop, and they all have the same good manners, even the Americans: When the president of the United States (Billy Bob Thornton!) tries to impose his policies on the British government, he does it with much more finesse than his real-life counterpart does. While watching Love Actually, I couldnít help but think that I was watching a talented screenwriter hit the limits of his abilities. The movieís an undiluted expression of Richard Curtisí temperament, and without the mediation of a director, his soft-shelled romantic optimism is too much. By the time the movie ends with a montage of hundreds of families embracing at Heathrow Airport, you may feel the way I felt, as though youíve eaten too many Christmas cookies.


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