Love, Actually (United Kingdom, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Love Actually doesn't have a cynical frame in its celluloid. It's for all those romantics who think there aren't enough happy endings. Richard Curtis' movie dips so deep into the well of feel-good sentiment that it will threaten to send some audience members into sugar shock. There are times when all of this goodwill feels a tad forced and artificial (such as at the ending), but, on balance, Love Actually is appealing and genial with plenty of solid laughs, and worthy of a recommendation for those who appreciate this kind of thing. Just don't expect material that's edgy, dark, or challenging. Consider Love Actually the antidote to Mystic River.

Love Actually has about a half-dozen happy endings, some of which are more deserved than others. One in particular, featuring an airport chase, is so over-the-top that it feels like an exercise in absurdist fantasy. Curtis is trying for that inner glow that accompanies a really magical motion picture. He wants people exiting the theater to be walking on air, thinking of romance. I don't think he quite hits the mark, but most people (including me) were at least smiling, and that's something. And no one seemed to be muttering about wanting to kill the filmmakers.

The film is about love in its many forms and guises: love between siblings, love between parents and children, love between spouses, puppy love, platonic love, unrequited love, and (of course) sexual/romantic love. The last, unsurprisingly, gets the most screen time as Curtis delights in pairing off a number of his characters. The "central romance," if there can be considered to be one, is between the British Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) and a shapely assistant, Natalie (former U.K. soap star Martine McCutcheon). Other couplings involve writer Jamie (Colin Firth) and his Portuguese maid, Aurelia (Lucina Moniz); widower Daniel (Liam Neeson) and the mother of his step-son's classmate; the PM's sister, Karen (Emma Thomspon), and her husband, Harry (Alan Rickman); and Harry's subordinate, Susan (Laura Linney), and a younger co-worker, Carl (Rodrigo Santoro). Meanwhile, people like aging pop star Billy Mac (Bill Nighy) and a details-oriented department store clerk (Rowan Atkinson) are around to provide comic relief.

The problem with Love Actually, as is often the case with large ensembles, is that we don't spend nearly enough time with the interesting characters. Half of the stories presented in the film are sufficiently engaging that they could warrant their own feature, and it becomes a little frustrating to get only the Cliff Notes version. Character development is spotty, which pretty much goes with the territory when you divide 129 minutes by about 18 significant parts. How much can a writer do when he has an average of about 7 minutes to work with for each individual? One often gets the sense that the state of love is more important to Curtis than the people he uses to examine it. (Rumor has it that more than 60 minutes of cuts were necessary to get the movie down to an "acceptable" release length, and these may re-appear for the DVD version.)

Solid acting covers up some of the writer's limitations. The cast is a who's who of U.K. actors, with notables such as Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Kiera Knightley, Alan Rickman, Billy Nighy, Liam Neeson, and Rowan Atkinson having significant roles. They are joined by Billy Bob Thornton as an American president who's half Bill Clinton and half George W. Bush, and Laura Linney. (Linney has the interesting distinction of having appeared in one of 2003's heaviest films, Mystic River, and one of the year's lightest, Love Actually.)

I suppose one could consider Love Actually as a holiday motion picture, since there's a heavy does of Christmastime atmosphere. However, the movie isn't so intimately wed to the time of year that it can't exist without it (and viewers who sit down to watch it in the middle of summer won't find themselves longing for December). This is one of those times when a film's goodwill allows critics and viewers alike to overlook its most egregious flaws and enjoy it for what it's trying to be. This is Curtis' first outing behind a camera, but many potential movie-goers will be familiar with his work as a screenwriter, which includes Bridget Jones' Diary, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and Funeral, and The Tall Guy (as well as the "Mr. Bean" and "Blackadder" TV series). Love Actually fits very well into that group, and anyone who has enjoyed Curtis' past projects will probably like his latest one.

Love, Actually (United Kingdom, 2003)

Run Time: 2:09
U.S. Release Date: 2003-11-07
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1