All You Need is Love

This multi-stranded ensemble comedy is the debut directorial effort of Richard Curtis, writer for such romantic comedy confections as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones's Diary. It features a sparkling British-American cast of newly minted and long familiar stars, whose various dalliances in the broad field of love sometimes bisect and intertwine with each other.

The title expresses an English diffidence that supposedly makes it difficult for the characters to express their love and, fittingly, the bookend voiceovers come from that crown prince of verbal hesitancy, Hugh Grant. People still love each other, actually, he says, before claiming distastefully that love is the predominant message from the World Trade Center attack: "As far as I know, none of the phone messages from the planes were messages of hate." That disingenuous line sticks out like a gangrenous thumb that the taste police should have amputated long before the movie made it within scarpering distance of a test screening.

Based in a picture-postcard, wintry London, a heavy dose of Christmastime atmosphere pervades the picture's half-dozen or so romantic subplots, which are scattered about like so much torn wrapping paper on Xmas morning; an array of bite-sized, soft-centered mini-plots. They deal with love in its various manifestations: familial love, platonic love, unrequited love and, of course, (in a low-octave Barry White growl) romantic luuurve.

Characters range from the new, bachelor Prime Minister (Hugh Grant), who falls for his chirpy cockney tea lady (Martine McCutcheon), only for her to become the object of the US President’s (Billy Bob Thornton) sleazy attentions; to Liam Neeson’s alarmingly articulate 11-year-old stepson, who is smitten by an American classmate. We have Emma Thompson as Alan Rickman's wronged wife, slipping away from the family celebra
tions to control her secret tears by the marital bed; and stealing the movie is Bill Nighy’s dissolute, superannuated rocker, shooting for a Christmas number one with a cynically repackaged version of Love Is All Around.

His foul-mouthed forays into the record-promotional circuit are consistently hilarious, although he laments that, “when I was young, I was greedy and foolish, and now I'm left with no one.”

There is plenty to like about the film, but the problem with Love Actually, actually, is that we don't spend enough time with the interesting characters. Half of the stories are sufficiently engaging to warrant their own feature, whereas others feel like cheap, disposable stocking fillers. At times, Curtis seems to be ticking off a checklist of obligatory, button-pushing movie love scenarios and doesn't want to omit anything. You have to admire the ambition of it all, even if he has bitten off more Xmas pud than he can actually chew.

Similarly, the wildly varying treatment of the different portions proves somewhat unsettling, swerving between cynicism and sincerity, to present a skein of crossed signals. We have earnest drama, straining for gravitas to anchor the movie in one corner; while other, shallower segments, such as the ignominious tale of the geek who journeys to America to get laid on the strength of his English accent, are so over-the-top they feel like an exercise in absurdist fantasy.

Solid acting compensates for some of the screenplay’s limitations: Alan Rickman, Liam Neeson and Emma Thompson are a pleasure to watch, so outclassing some of the lesser-known players it’s almost embarrassing. Hugh Grant, in f
ull-on bumbling mode again, looks quizzically at everyone and everything with the suppressed smirk of an actor who is clearly going to burst out laughing the moment he hears "Cut!" The ill-observed scenes in Downing Street are wholly unconvincing, but Grant’s hallway dancing scene is one of the movie’s comic highlights. Rowan Atkinson’s cameo is all too brief.

Curtis is trying for that cozy inner glow that accompanies a really magical film, so that people exit the theater walking on air, seduced by romance. Anyone who has enjoyed his past projects will probably like Love Actually, and the film's festive goodwill should allow critics and viewers alike to forgive its egregious flaws and enjoy it for what it's trying to be. Curtis has hinted that he wants to branch out into something more serious, which is probably a good thing; as dependable as this kind of fare has proved over the past decade, it’s time to try something different. The durability of the formula can only last so long before it turns into self-parody.

-- Published by, 2003


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