Love Actually


Laura Clifford 
Love Actually  
Robin Clifford 
A single new Prime Minister (Hugh Grant, "About a Boy") and his staffer Natalie (Martine McCutcheon, British TV's "Eastenders") from the 'dodgy' part of town.  Newly widowed Daniel (Liam Neeson, "Gangs of New York") and his 11-year old stepson Sam (Thomas Sangster).  Has-been rock star Billy Mack (Bill Nighy, "Lawless Heart") and selfless manager Joe (Gregor Fisher). Newlyweds Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor, "Dirty Pretty Things") and Juliet (Keira Knightley, "Pirates of the Caribbean") and their Best Man Mark (Andrew Lincoln, "The Jury").  Shy American office worker Sarah (Laura Linney, "The Life of David Gale") and her darkly handsome coworker Karl (Rodrigo Santoro).  What do all these people share?  "Love Actually."

Laura:
Writer Richard Curtis ("Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Notting Hill) makes his directorial debut with his latest boilerplate screenplay (after only eighteen minutes a wedding and a funeral have taken place) and carries it with along with musical selections, of which only one has any real emotional heft.  His base commercial instincts are saved, however, by his well directed, engaging cast that gift wraps the material with holiday spirit.  This one looks like a smash hit.

There are many story lines working through this one, not all at the same level or tone.  Hugh Grant's confident comic ability keeps his adorably flustered PM's (who dances through 10 Downing St. when inspired by "Jump (for my Love)" on the soundtrack in a bit of shameless movie malarkey) unbelievable romance with his sweetly potty-mouthed tea lady afloat.  He excels doing some impromptu Christmas carolling in search of his lady love.  McCutcheon has been handed an international breakout role as the full-figured Natalie who tempts the roaming hands of the sleazy U.S. President (Billy Bob Thornton, "Intolerable Cruelty"). Colin Firth (last seen as the single, adorably flustered PM of "What a Girl Wants") is author Jamie who whisks his broken heart off to a French villa to write, but instead is distracted by the charms of his Portuguese-speaking housekeeper Aurelia (Luca Moniz).  This is one of the more poorly written segments, beginning with wobbly confusion before segueing into fantastic romantic comedy overkill, but the two actors have chemistry.  One of the more affecting strands follows the PM's sister Karen (Emma Thompson, "Primary Colors") whose comfortable marriage to Harry (Alan Rickman, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets") is threatened by Harry's seductive secretary Mia (Heike Makatsch).  When Thompson realizes the gift she's expecting has gone to another her heartbreak is ours and Joni Mitchell's lyrics to "Both Sides Now" are beautifully incorporated.  Liam Neeson doesn't fare so well, his Daniel forced the indignity of bearing his wife's coffin out her funeral service to the Bay City Rollers' "Bye Bye Baby."  Her death is just a launching pad for Daniel to get to know stepson Sam by helping him court the most popular girl in school, one of the film's more lightweight plot threads, the sitcom version of "About a Boy."

A Curtis production is not complete without a handicapped character and he appears as the mysterious caller who constantly interrupts Sarah's life.  Linney is up there with Thompson as one of the two that generate true emotion.  She's the definition of love itself and Linney sends it forth in laser beams from her eyes, yet Curtis leaves her most bereft of all his characters.  (Her love interest, Karl, is a one-dimensional dreamboat.)  Of the more comedically slanted stories, Nighy steals the show as the aging rocker roaring back into the limelight with a regurgitated remake ("Love Is All Around Us" with the word 'Love' replaced with 'Christmas') that he admits is crap, much to the distress of his hard-working manager Joe.  A video parodying Robert Palmer at his 80's zombie-chick bedecked best is hilarious.  The newlywed and best man frippery is a bundle of Hollywood cliches that gives up-and-comer Chiwetel Ejiofor the girl then dumps him on the sidelines, but showcases Keira Knightley in a gossamer glow.  Two minor, broadly comic subplots feature sandwich vendor Colin (Kris Marshall, "Iris") going to Wisconsin confidently assured that his British accent will land him babes and John (Martin Freeman, BBC's "The Office") and Just Judy (Joanna Page, "From Hell"), two porno stand-ins working up the bravery to kiss after days of working together in nude, compromising positions. Rowan Atkinson ("Mr. Bean") gets more chuckles from his presence than his material as a sales clerk who stands in for Harry's conscience.  Ivana Milicevic, January Jones, Elisha Cuthbert (TV's "24"), Nancy Sorrell and Denise Richards ("Scary Movie 3") are good-natured as bodacious American babes and Claudia Schiffer appears to grant Daniel's wish.

While Curtis's screenplay is full of the last minute airport meetings and Christmas school pageants that we've seen one time too many, his direction is assured, balancing the comic with the more dramatic and neatly juggling his multitude of characters.  The film boasts the high gloss production values one would expect.

"Love Actually" is a good natured assault which is sure to break down the defenses of all but the most curmudgeonly of filmgoers.  It's like a compilation 'Best of' hits album targeted at Christmas shoppers.

B- 

Robin:
Britain’s brand new bachelor Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) is smitten with one of his staffers, Natalie (Martine McCutcheon). Writer Jamie (Colin Firth) falls for his charming Portuguese housekeeper Aurelia (Lucia Moniz). Karen (Emma Thompson) suddenly learns that she may be losing her husband, Harry (Alan Rickman), to the conniving clutches of his assistant, Mia (Heike Makatsch). Mark (Andrew Lincoln) harbors an unrequited love for his best friend’s new wife, Juliet (Keira Knightly). Widower Daniel (Liam Neeson) helps his lovesick 11-year old stepson, Sam (Thomas Sangster), to find his first love. Sarah, for two years, seven months, three days and one and a half hours has had a crush on office hunk, Karl (Rodrigo Santoro). Sad sack Colin (Kris Marshall) has had it with stuck up English chicks and plans to go to the Promised Land of Wisconsin, USA to find true love or, at least, a lot of sex. Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) is an old rock star and ex-heroin addict searching for a comeback with his Christmas cover of “Love Is All Around.” Everyone, we are sure, will find “Love Actually.”

First-time helmer Richard Curtis has made a tidy career writing such money-making romantic comedy hits as “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Notting Hill”.” He continues this tradition, and that of casting Hugh Grant, with his large ensemble piece, “Love Actually,” which is, essentially, a collection of short stories of how love enters the lives of us all. The film starts off with rocker Billy Mack plugging his entry for the year’s biggest selling Christmas song, “Christmas Is All Around.” Things move on to each of the other stories as the plights of the players are laid out and returned to at regular intervals. Each story has love at its center (except for Billy Mack) and scripter Curtis does a neat job of tying off each thread with some of the story lines woven together.

The talented veteran cast has some of the most popular Brit thesps. Hugh Grant, the main draw to “Love Actually,” uses his usual aw-shucks line delivery to good affect as the new Prime Minister but his character also shows that he has some political spine when he stands up to the jingoistic policies of the American president (a lusty cameo performance by Billy Bob Thornton). Grant’s natural charm and humor do him good stead in the role of the English PM. Liam Neeson takes on step fatherhood as he helps Sam with his love problems but denying himself love ever again - unless it is with supermodel Claudia Schiffer. Emma Thompson gets the meatiest role as a woman who realizes that her comfortable life is in jeopardy and she may lose her mate. Alan Rickman is a man caught between fidelity and forbidden fruit. Brit heartthrob Colin Firth and Lucia Moniz have the most charming story in the film with him only speaking English and her only Portuguese, making for some of the most sparkling and amusing dialogue in “Love Actually.” The other stories have their own measure, too. Bill Nighy steals the show whenever on the screen with his rock star cynicism, I’m-so-bored demeanor and funny, off-color dialogue.

Techs are, as expected, superb with the holidays given a glitzy glamour that you can only find in movies. (Even the requisite school Christmas play is of Broadway caliber.) Michael Coulter’s lens faultlessly follows all the characters and gives each their own due. Jim Clay’s production design takes into account the multitude of locales, from 10 Downing Street to the normal, everyday places of work and play. The deft marshalling of the large cast and crew belies that this is the director’s first feature.

“Love Actually” could well be a Christmas season staple for years to come on video. As it is, it is going to be a big holiday hit on the big screen. I give it a B.

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