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Love Actually

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With scripts for Four Weddings And A Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones's Diary, among others, one-man hit factory Richard Curtis has generated more than $1 billion in receipts worldwide, virtually cornering the market on frothy, upscale romantic comedies. In step with the reliably charming Hugh Grant, his leading man and probable muse, Curtis delves into intelligent populism that doesn't mess with the tried-and-true, yet doesn't mistake pandering for accessibility, either. But Curtis gets greedy in his directorial debut: Love Actually shamelessly compresses eight or nine sure-fire hits into one booming ode to amour, and double-shamelessly sets the whole thing at Christmas. On bended knee, offering two dozen red roses, a heart-shaped box of chocolates, and a moonlit carriage ride around Central Park, Curtis makes such a naked, desperate appeal for affection that it's hard not to warm to the gesture. Like any good salesman, he begins by identifying his target audience, which in this case is basically everyone who sympathizes more with the average airline passenger than with those inclined to crash it into the World Trade Center. After declaring that love still rules a volatile planet, Curtis sets out to demonstrate his thesis through a Robert Altman-esque mélange of interconnected storylines, some more convincing than others. Winning as ever, Grant anchors the film as the newly installed British prime minister, a swinging bachelor with a Bill Clinton-like flair for addressing national business ("Let's fix the country, shall we?"), as well as addressing the flirtations of staff member Martine McCutcheon. Outside of an amusing meet-cute between stand-ins on a porno set, other pairings are beset by complications, major and minor. An English author (Colin Firth) falls in love with a Portuguese maid (Lúcia Moniz) who speaks a different language, a wallflower (Laura Linney) finally gets the courage to ask a coworker (Rodrigo Santoro) for a date after two years of shyness, a bride (Keira Knightley) discovers that her husband's best man (Andrew Lincoln) has feelings for her, and a recently widowed father (Liam Neeson) helps his son (Thomas Sangster) land the popular girl in school. Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson add some much-needed gravity to the airy proceedings as a sexless married couple threatened by a young Jezebel (Heike Makatsch), and odd-man-out Bill Nighy is delightful as an aging rocker looking to score a Christmas hit. When all these disparate subplots are finally rolled together, Love Actually snowballs into an avalanche of good feeling, shrewdly calculated to overwhelm even if it means dropping a few story threads or leaving others too square or maudlin. To Curtis' great credit, he doesn't allow this romantic game of musical chairs to end without pulling a few out from under his characters; at least he admits that love is complicated and sometimes untenable. But that's a dubious sort of triumph, as Love Actually provides enough happy endings to make the audience forget that romance and Christmas miracles don't always work out.