BY LYNN LEE
Love actually is all around us – especially at Christmas. So at least we are meant to believe from “Love Actually,” the latest romantic-comedy export from the British Isles and the directorial debut of Richard Curtis, the writer of such recent gems as “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” “Notting Hill” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” And would he ever have us believe it! There’s enough love, in both variety and quantity, to go around several times, like the traditional plum pudding at an English Christmas dinner. And like said pudding, it may not prove entirely digestible for all stomachs, though it’s probably sticky-sweet and plummy enough comfort food for most.
The movie tries hard – in fact, more than a bit too hard – to capitalize on Curtis’s strengths as a writer, without coming up to the standards of his previous work. Want quirky characters? Boy-meets-girl cute through stumbling subtitles? Hugh Grant faltering adorably as romantic lead? They’re all there, but spread over so many different storylines that there isn’t time to dwell on any one narrative thread long enough for it to soak in the viewer’s consciousness. The connections between the various characters are glossed over very rapidly, though there isn’t much sense that they matter too much.
There’s the aforementioned Hugh Grant, playing out all good British citizens’ fondest wish-fulfillment fantasies as an unmarried, cuter version of Tony Blair who has enough balls to stand up to a buffoon of an American president (Billy Bob Thornton) but who can hardly talk to his attractive young secretary. There’s Liam Neeson as a grieving widower who tries to teach his very young stepson how to win the object of his love; Colin Firth as a writer who discovers his wife is cheating on him and flees to his villa in France, only to find unexpected romance with his Portuguese cleaning girl; Emma Thompson as the middle-aged wife and mom who discovers her husband (Alan Rickman) may be cheating on her; Laura Linney as the working woman who finds herself caught between the love she owes her institutionalized brother and her attraction to a smokin’ hot co-worker; Keira Knightley as a radiant newlywed who learns why her husband’s best friend behaves so coldly towards her; a young couple who meet weird-but-cute on set as body doubles for a porn flick; a fading British rock star who realizes that he’s had love all along with his forbearing manager; a socially challenged hornball who heads for the wilds of Wisconsin, convinced that his British accent will allow him to pick up American chicks.
The best feature of “Love Actually” is its casting roll call of Britain’s finest (plus Linney, whose American presence is never really explained). It’s especially nice to see Thompson on screen again, adding class and depth and providing one of the few genuinely poignant – as opposed to schmaltzy – moments of the film. Neeson, too, provides welcome warmth without soppiness and grounds with grace and humor what could otherwise be a drearily typical showcase for a very cute but impossibly precocious child star. But the movie generally doesn’t make sufficient use of the talents of its actors. Chiwetel Ejiofor, so compelling as the protagonist of “Dirty Pretty Things,” is basically wasted here; and even Grant, winsome though he is, regresses from the more complex dimensions he showed in “About a Boy” to the rapid blinking and slight stammer that made him the poster boy for ’90s British romantic comedies.
The regression may be excusable, given that Grant is genuinely endearing as the diffident, surprisingly limber-hipped prime minister. Less so is Curtis’s tendency as a director to lay on cuteness with a trowel: more than once, what began as charming ends up as sentimental treacle. After a while, you can predict and feel when you’re supposed to laugh and cry, which casts a synthetic sheen over those Kodak moments – especially when you move immediately on to one of the dozen other plotlines, only to enter into the same cheer- and tearjerking rhythms. Curtis cuts between the various stories deftly enough that we may not notice until afterwards that more than one of them does not reach happy closure. If we laugh and cry enough, we may not even notice the disturbing tendency of his male protagonists to end up happily united with much younger women who happen to be their social subordinates, while his older female protagonists are forced to deal with romantic disappointment and the possible withdrawal of love.
Still, to its credit, “Love Actually” does succeed in showing that there is more than one kind of love that is important besides romantic love, and that love suffers mistakes and requires compromise and courage. If it does bury the message in tinsel and sap, what of it? ‘Tis the season, and Christmas comes only once a year.