Trailers advertise Richard Curtis’s directorial debut “Love Actually” as the ultimate romantic comedy. The film lives up to its hype, depicting love among a dozen or so individuals as they profess, achieve, or hold onto the loves of their lives over the five weeks before Christmas. Curtis, whose past screenplays include Bridget Jones’s Diary, Notting Hill, and “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” tells a story cloyed with amour. Watching two to four people play out courtship rituals is enjoyable, but twelve is too much to handle. I’m not enough of a hopeless romantic to avoid the occasional cringe.
The “central” character is David (Hugh Grant), England’s new Prime Minister. His first day on the job, he becomes smitten with Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), one of the staff. He also realizes running the country won’t be easy. His story runs parallel with about six others. There’s Jamie (Colin Firth), a writer who becomes infatuated with his Portuguese housekeeper Aurelia (Lucia Moniz), and Mark (Andrew Lincoln), who is in love with his best friend Peter’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor of “Dirty, Pretty Things”) new wife Juliet (Kiera Knightley).
The film also follows Daniel (Liam Neeson) as he helps his young stepson Sam (Thomas Sangston) summon up the courage to proclaim his love for the coolest girl in school. Meanwhile, Karen (Emma Thompson) suspects that her husband Harry (Alan Rickman) is being tempted by his secretary Mia (Heike Makatsch). Harry simultaneously tries to deal with the saucy assistant as well as convince one of his employees Sarah (Laura Linney) to ask out Karl (Rodrigo Santoro), the cutest of his workers.
For comedic effect, there’s also Billy Mack (Bill Nighy), an old rocker trying to rejuvenate his singing career with a Christmas version of an earlier hit; Colin (Kris Marshall), who goes to Wisconsin for love because he believes American girls cannot resist an English accent; and John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page), who share a few very intimate moments that blossom into adoration. Curtis’s script is already witty, but these three plotlines offer visual and verbal cues to chuckle.
A lot goes on in “Love Actually.” This over-abundance of human traffic is the film’s primary weakness. There are too many characters and not all of the stories are equally developed. For instance, Rowan Atkinson plays a retail merchant in an upscale department store. He only has about five to ten minutes on screen, but he accomplishes what he needs to in order to affect Harry’s behavior in one scene. Near the film’s end, Rowan re-emerges and unintentionally becomes accomplice to young Sam. Rowan’s scenes aren’t long, but he delivers them a la Mr. Bean (for which Curtis has written several episodes). He expresses a lot with his body language even in such brief appearances.
Billy Bob Thornton, who plays the American President, also has very little screen time. While his performance is just as succinct as Rowan’s, you’re not satiated with his contribution. Thornton’s three to four scenes involve meeting Natalie, the Prime Minister and members of his Cabinet, and then holding a press conference. In the few minutes it takes for these scenes to unfold, the Prime Minister makes some very important decisions—all because he walks in on the President and Natalie in a precarious situation. Tension thus builds between the leaders of the US and the UK, and is subtly displayed during the press conference.
The chemistry between Thornton and Grant is so fascinating that Curtis should make an entire film about the American President, the Prime Minister, and the Natalie character. Likewise, the director could make a movie focused on developing the attraction between Jamie and Aurelia because as it is presented in “Love Actually,” you can’t figure out why and how they fall in love.
The film has a running time of 128 minutes; it cannot be any longer. With fewer characters and storylines to shape, though, Curtis’s film would yield an even finer ultimate romantic comedy. The emphasis would be on quality rather than quantity of relationships, and you wouldn’t leave the theatre scratching your head, wondering how some of the characters even know each other.