It’s only five weeks until Christmas in London, and love is in the air for a large variety of citizens. There’s a married couple (Emma Thompson and national treasure Alan Rickman) facing relationship woes. An emotionally-burdened office worker (Laura Linney), who secretly desires a co-worker. A widower (Liam Neeson) who is trying to piece his life back together while helping his stepchild (Thomas Sangster) land a girlfriend. Two adult film lighting stand-ins (Joanna Page and Martin Freeman) who connect while at work. A lonely young man (Andrew Lincoln) who secretly desires his best friend’s wife (Kira Knightley). An aging rocker (Bill Nighy) who is taking his manager for granted. A romantically undesirable man (Kris Marshall) who feels he must travel to America to find love. A writer (Colin Firth) who is pining for his maid (Lucia Moniz). And the Prime Minister (Hugh Grant), who can’t keep his assistant (Martine McCutcheon) out of his head. All these people collide during the holiday weeks as they try to find love in the face of overwhelming odds.
“Love Actually” is the latest crushingly happy affair from Working Title Films, the producers of “Four Weddings and a Funeral, “Notting Hill,” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” The company has elected to give screenwriter Richard Curtis his first big shot at directing, having already scripted the aforementioned smashes, along with his extensive work on the “Mr. Bean” franchise. For his big debut behind the camera, Curtis has made the excellent decision and decided to call in every possible favor from the top tier of British acting talent. He has also added a pinch of American intelligence (Linney) and eye-candy (Shannon Elizabeth, Denise Richards, Elisha Cuthbert, and January Jones appear briefly), and has chosen the greatest cinematic holiday from which to work from: Christmas. “Love Actually” is smug, childish, cliched, unrelentingly and sickeningly upbeat, and when Hugh Grant decides to shake his ass to the Pointer Sisters’ “Jump (For My Love),” the picture becomes embarrassingly silly. But, inner-preciousness detectors be damned, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. “Love” isn’t the most romantic featured I’ve come into contact with, but it’s the one film that stands out in brilliant colors for being so defiantly in love with the idea of love. Bombastic audience-hooting moments aside, Curtis has written his best film yet, and found time to direct the hell out of it as well. And it’s even gloriously R-rated!
Assembling a cast of about 20 main characters (the above synopsis leaves a lot of people out) to follow in the continually intertwining story, “Love Actually” often resembles a Robert Altman film if it were on Prozac and maybe a touch of Viagra. It zigzags through two handfuls of stories about all kinds of love found in the world, whether it’s platonic, romantic, fraternal, reliable, detestable, forgettable, desirable, taken for granted, or so heartfelt it crushes all in its path. Curtis opens the film up in an airport, having Hugh Grant explain to the audience that no matter how impossible the world can be, there is always a capacity for love in humanity, seen everyday in the arrivals area of the average airport. This sets the tone expertly since, as saccharine as the plot and the characters appear to be, Curtis maintains a level of realism not often seen in a picture this fanciful and filled with holiday cheer. Yes, there are the romantic comedy staples such as a last minute dash to find the one true woman that dreams are made of, oodles of meet cutes, and there is a teetering on the brink of truly nauseating romantic comedy dialog that Curtis has been known to dish out time and again in his earlier scripts. But the malarkey stops right at the point of no return. There isn’t a silver lining to some of the characters’ futures, and Curtis doesn’t pretend that he knows all the answers. Like another gem from 2003, “Lost In Translation,” there is a palatable sense of regret strung, much like the tinsel, throughout “Love,” with heartbreaking characters unable to get what they want, or unable to voice their desires clearly. It’s in these delicious glimpses of frustrated yearning that Curtis develops a real bond with his characters and the audience, balancing out the more improbable takes on romance with little eggnog sips of aching reality.
To wax rhapsodic about the cast would take days, so suffice it to say that this is one amazing ensemble. Extra credit is certainly due for Emma Thompson’s return to the screen, after a long hiatus, as a fidelity-questioning wife, Liam Neeson showing signs of likeability again as the widowed father of a love-struck child, and Andrew Lincoln doing his best unspoken desire routine as he pines for a woman he cannot have, taking with him the film’s finest, Bob Dylanesque moment. And Hugh Grant makes for a very fashionable Prime Minister, with a performance that is reliable in all the good ways Grant is known for. All this is trumped by Bill Nighy, who commits grand theft movie in the role of aging rocker Billy Mack, who wants nothing more than one last hurrah on the holiday charts, using unflappable honesty and public desperation as his way there. He’s an absolute scream. In actuality, the whole cast is aces, making Curtis look like a better director than he might very well be.
It’s easy to be blinded by the show stopping, rollicking sequences that close “Love Actually,” but attention must be paid to what Curtis doesn’t show the audience. For every celebratory shot of a love connection, Curtis gives us a relationship that is on the brink of crumbling, or never even getting a chance to begin. The film closes with a moment of reassurance, but under the buttery crust lies the truth about relationships, and “Love Actually” deserves major credit for steering clear of becoming a complete game of Candyland. Still, I’d advise viewers to bring floss, because the sight of a 12 year-old chasing the girl of his dreams through Heathrow is sweet enough to cause major moviegoing cavities.
I would hazard to guess that the only depressing aspect of “Love Actually” is that Curtis has been giving his scripts away to other directors all these years when he should’ve been doing the job himself. “Love Actually” isn’t nearly as cringe inducing as it looks (or that I was expecting in all honesty), and if you’re any kind of romantic, it’s a marvelous choice for both the holiday season and a reminder to appreciate the loved ones that surround you.