Love Actually, yet another Richard Curtis movie about shy Brits rowing strenuously toward a positive outcome, is the most shamelessly calculating bit of fluff I've seen since Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones's Diary—all of which Curtis wrote or co-wrote and almost all of which I could kick myself for enjoying as much as I did. Let it be said that I drew the line at Notting Hill, a cloying piece of dreck in which that quintessential anonymous Everyman, Hugh Grant, got to shack up with Julia Roberts.
Love Actually is rather lazily knocked off from Notting Hill, though this time Grant plays the star, a Blair-alike prime minister who falls for an ample, foul-mouthed secretary (played with proletarian gumption by Martine McCutcheon) at No. 10. But it is far and away the more winning movie, and it comes by its unrelenting schmaltz more or less honestly. If you're going to have your emotional responses shunted around like a gear stick, it might as well be by someone who writes dialogue as funny as Curtis does, and who, in his first outing as a director, brings Oxbridge panache and unquenchable sincerity to what is essentially a souped-up situation comedy.
Slickly framed by the run-up to a London Christmas, storyboarded within an inch of its life and snappily edited to rein in a plethora of subplots, Love Actually reaches out to the hapless soul within all of us who can't connect, or insists on loving the one we can't have, or lusts after the hard-bodied secretary, or lacks the courage to declare ourselves. Though the movie is billed as a vehicle for Grant, the actor only shows up every 20 minutes or so to do his usual embarrassed shuffle and stutter and run his fingers through his hair. (Why he keeps doing this tired shtick when, given a bit of remorseless villainy to work with—Restoration, An Awfully Big Adventure—the man can actually act is a mystery, or would be if he didn't bring home the box-office bacon every time.) For the rest, a vast ensemble of characters played by big-deal British stars, sprinkled with talented character actors and a few Yanks for import/export purposes, run around bumping into one another as they make the usual hashes of their love lives. The movie is littered with sensitive males, among them Liam Neeson as an inconsolable widower trying to advise his lovelorn stepson and the infallible Alan Rickman as an excruciatingly ill-at-ease executive chafing under his comfortable marriage. Followers of Colin Firth's torso will be ecstatic to hear the dishy actor, as a diffident mystery writer with a radar for the wrong woman, once again dives shirtless into a pond. There are some ineffably funny moments, most of them provided by Bill Nighy as a drug-addled, aging rock star trying to make a comeback with the gooey '60s hit "Love Is All Around" and Curtis' longtime collaborator Rowan Atkinson as a department-store salesman with an irregular attitude toward gift-wrap.
Still, for a romantic comedy, Love Actually is a pretty good anatomy of loneliness and grief, whether it's that of Emma Thompson, striving in vain for dowdiness as Rickman's stay-at-home wife who's trying to cope with the fact that her clueless husband has just bought his nubile secretary a pricey necklace, or of Laura Linney as a tweedy office employee pining for a handsome colleague even as she fields impossible family commitments. True, the director makes sure in almost every case that everything comes up roses. Movies like Love Actuallyare often made by jaded cynics preying on our shallowest feelings. One senses that Curtis is not a cynic but a congenital optimist who believes that, notwithstanding the evening news, love really is all around—or at least lurking by the arrivals gate at Heathrow airport. Love Actually is often banal, but it is not false, and even its willfully sunny creator will allow that love doesn't conquer all. The truest, most affecting scenes come late in the movie, and they have nothing to do with resolution and everything to do with renunciation.
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Love Actually was written and directed by Richard Curtis; produced by Duncan Kenworthy, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner; and Stars Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson. Now playing countywide.