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FILM REVIEW: LOVE ACTUALLY
By Mark Caro
Chicago Tribune Movie Writer
The ensemble romantic comedy "Love Actually" opens with one of its least familiar actors, Bill Nighy, as a wonderfully crooked-faced pop singer recording a lame, Christmas-themed remake of the Troggs' "Love Is All Around." The running joke, which provides the movie's most reliable laughs, is that this old-timer is so candid and good-natured about the record's crassness that the British public sends it zooming up the charts.
Alas, "Love Actually" has more in common with the renamed "Christmas Is All Around," at least in terms of commercial calculation, than writer-director Richard Curtis probably would wish to admit.
Curtis is the smart writer behind "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Notting Hill" and "Bridget Jones's Diary," three of the more accomplished romantic comedies of recent vintage, so he must realize how patronizing "Love Actually" is. He's taken the most crowd-pleasing conventions of his films and photocopied them over and over in an apparent attempt to maximize the consumer-friendliness of his directorial debut.
He should have called this overstuffed comedy "Love, British Style," as it interweaves eight stories in a manner reminiscent of a certain corny TV series of the early '70s. Individually, the tales wouldn't stand up as short stories. Together, they make for sporadically amusing, ultimately wearying viewing.
Perhaps Curtis just wanted an excuse to work with an all-star cast of appealing, mostly British performers. Curtis has Hugh Grant, his longtime stand-in of sorts, playing England's new bachelor prime minister, a glib, likable chap (surprise!) who finds himself drawn to 10 Downing Street's young catering manager, Natalie (likable newcomer Martine McCutcheon).
The movie also gets Colin Firth to do his trademark yummy-to-the-ladies, shy-guy thing as a cheated-on writer who heads to the country and falls for the Portuguese housekeeper (Lucia Moniz). Emma Thompson brings her characteristic warmth and intelligence to a housewife whose husband, played by Alan Rickman, appears to be tempted by his new seductress secretary (Heike Makatsch).
Rickman also plays boss to Laura Linney's shy Sarah, who's been harboring a crush on her company's chief designer (Rodrigo Santoro) but is constantly distracted by phone calls from her mentally ill brother. The other stories involve the awkward relationship between a best man (Andrew Lincoln) and a newlywed couple (Keira Knightly and Chiwetel Ejiofor); a lovesick 11-year-old boy (Thomas Sangster) who seeks advice from his recently widowed stepdad (Liam Neeson); a happy-go-lucky twit (Kris Marshall) who hopes to hit the hot-chick jackpot by moving to Wisconsin; and a pair of porno film stand-ins (Joanna Page and Martin Freeman) who strike up sweet conversations while enacting lewd poses.
Each segment has its moments, but they're rarely more than moments, and there are so darned many of them. Curtis just cuts from one to the other, never establishing depth anywhere.
He's a talented enough writer with a talented enough cast that you'd be a killjoy to dismiss the whole kaboodle. Much of the dialogue is sharp, but Curtis also reveals a cutesy, precious streak. Grant's introductory voiceover, for instance, makes the pro-love case by citing heartfelt phone calls from doomed Sept. 11 jet passengers before concluding, "I've got a sneaking suspicion that love actually is all around."
The movie grows more cloying and repetitive as it stretches well beyond two hours. Almost every main character boasts the same bashful, puppy-dog attitude toward romance.
Three segments feature someone being ridiculed for being overweight, and characters keep pointing out that Christmas is the traditional time for declaring one's love to another. (I thought it was the traditional time for being driven nuts by your family.)
If Curtis could fling cotton candy from the screen into the audience, he probably would. At one point he shows Grant doing a "Risky Business"-style dance to the Pointer Sisters' "Jump," followed by Firth trying to save his blowing-in-the-wind manuscript (ugh) by jumping clothed into a lake. The Grant scene may draw laughs, but you suspect that Curtis won't respect you in the morning.
Curtis tries tying everything together neatly at the end, but he's working with too many strands. The Rickman-Thompson and Linney stories, in particular, get short shrift, and characters who appear to be close friends early on - such as Neeson's and Thompson's - don't even acknowledge one another when they're in the same place.
The most satisfying relationship turns out to be a non-romantic one, between Nighy's rock star and his manager. Otherwise, "Love Actually" is too much tease, not enough satisfaction.
Written and directed by Richard Curtis; photographed by Michael Coulter; edited by Nick Moore; production designed by Jim Clay; music by Craig Armstrong; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Duncan Kenworthy. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday, Nov. 7. Running time: 2:15. MPAA rating: R (sexuality, nudity, language).
Harry - Alan Rickman
Billy Mack - Bill Nighy
Jamie - Colin Firth
Karen - Emma Thompson
The Prime Minister - Hugh Grant
Sarah - Laura Linney
Daniel - Liam Neeson
Natalie - Martine McCutcheon
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