Come Christmas time, what could be better than a star-studded British romantic comedy? How about some five-and-a-half British romantic comedies, all swaddled together in one cozy, overstuffed package? Well, that’s what viewers will get in “Love Actually,” yet another film by writer Richard Curtis (Bridget Jones’s Diary, Notting Hill, “Four Weddings and a Funeral”) in which Hugh Grant gets to look just adorable and London seems just smashing.
In a stab at Altman-esque dramatic interweaving, Curtis (who’s also directing this one, and doing an admittedly passable job) throws out a tangle of characters played by a larger roll call of British stars than who appeared in Gosford Park, and all of it taking place over the five weeks leading up to Christmas. Hugh Grant (back in mumbly mode after a series of charismatic cad roles) plays the brand-new prime minister who’s falling for one of the 10 Downing Street staff; Liam Neeson is a recent widower trying to help his young son through a spell of lovesickness; Laura Linney has a crush on a co-worker but keeps pulling away to answer mysterious cellphone calls; Alan Rickman heads toward an affair with his secretary, unbeknownst to his wife, Emma Thompson; Colin Firth plays a cuckolded novelist who finds love in Provence. And there’s more – much, much more.
The primary problem here is that, as engaging as each of these mini-stories is (and at least three or four of them could have made decent features all on their own), Curtis tries to pack so many of them in that several are frustratingly attenuated. And there are many times when it becomes painfully obvious that the links between the different characters – Rickman is Linney’s boss, Grant is Thompson’s older brother, etc. – are not so much an attempt to create a larger, cohesive work, but simply excuses to shoehorn everything together.
Could it be that for his directorial debut, Curtis decided not to actually write a new film, but to simply empty out his hard drive of uncompleted sketches? That romantic but funny proposal that he couldn’t find room for in “Four Weddings,” the gag that he couldn’t work into the “Mr. Bean” TV series, and so on. There are plenty of times when “Love Actually” feels less like a movie than an advertisement for itself. And the less said about Grant’s confrontation with the U.S. president (played far too stiff by the normally dependable Billy Bob Thornton), in which an international incident seems to be provoked by Grant’s childish jealousy, the better. More entertaining is a running gag involving an aging rocker (the cadaverous and hilarious Bill Nighy) trying to make a comeback with a novelty holiday tune that he knows is utter crap; unfortunately it has not a thing to do with the rest of the film.
All that said, with few exceptions, the sterling cast makes it all go down like a smooth, after-dinner liqueur. And ultimately, when “Love Actually” pulls out all the stops, which it does at least three times during the final smorgasbord of climaxes, it can be well nigh irresistible. But the hollowness of the stories that lie behind each of these shameless heart-grabbers, laugh-getters and tear-jerkers becomes quickly apparent, leaving you without much more than a few decent memories and the nagging thought that you need to get started on the Christmas shopping.
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