Review by Dustin Putman
2½ stars out of 4
a3atching "Love Actually," one could easily imagine it being directed
by Robert Altman if he offered cutesy characterizations and plot developments
and tidy, upb eat conclusions. The film has a sprawling cast of over
twenty lead roles, their lives loosely and not so loosely interwoven,
and, indeed, even opens with a recording session just as Altman's
1975 masterpiece "Nashville" did. Plagiarism or homage? Either way,
this connection was surely not incidental. In fact, replace country
music and politics with love as its focal subject matter and, voila,
"Love Actually" is born.
Keeping a scorecard of all of the characters and their relations with
one another would not be a bad idea, although as written and directed
by Richard Curtis (2002's "About a Boy") it isn't nearly as confusing
as it's about to seem. Recent widower Daniel (Liam Neeson) is worried
how his 11-year-old son, Sam (Thomas Sangster), is coping with the
death of his mother, while Sam is just as preoccupied with the love
he feels for popular classmate Joanne (Olivia Olson). Daniel's sister,
Karen (Emma Thompson), believes she is happily married to Harry (Alan
Rickman) until she secretly discovers he is contemplating an affair
with his young assistant, Mia (Heike Makatsch). Daniel and Karen's
other brother is the new British Prime Minister (Hugh Grant), who
becomes distracted when he falls head over heels for his tea lady,
Natalie (Martine McCutcheon). Working with Harry and Mia is Sarah
(Laura Linney), who has pined for handsome coworker Karl (Rodrigo
Santoro) for over two years, but has trouble getting close to anyone
because of her dedication to her mentally challenged brother. Early
on, Sarah attends the wedding of Juliet (Keira Knightley) and Peter
(Chiwetel Ejiofor), whose best friend, Mark (Andrew Lincoln), harbors
a painful secret crush on Juliet. Upon discovering his girlfriend
is cheating on him, Juliet, Peter, and Mark's friend, Jamie (Colin
Firth), falls in love with his Portuguese maid, Aureli a (Lucia Moniz),
despite their language barrier. John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna
Page) are porn actors who strike an undeniable connection during work
on their latest film. Meanwhile, once-famous musician Billy Mack (Bill
Nighy) is trying with all of his might to claim a comeback with his
latest song, a Christmas-themed cover version of "Love is All Around."
All of these storiesand more, believe it or notplay out over the five-week
period before Christmas.
"Love Actually" is so sweet, so cheerful, and so eager-to-please in
its singular goal to be "the ultimate romantic comedy" that it almost
seems wrong to say anything negative about it. Nonetheless, I will.
As this 129-minute epic plays out, as a viewer you are in the moment
and enjoying yourself. No scene runs longer than a minute or two,
and the storylines and characters so quickly change that there is
no time to grow tired of a particular segment. However, in juggling
so many different characters, no one is developed beyond surface-level.
You may grow to like most of the people you meet, but there are only
a select few worthy of staking a claim on how things will turn out.
The climax, as full of heart and good will as it is, threatens to
put the viewer into sugar shock.
The best segments undoubtedly belong to Colin Firth (2003's "What
a Girl Wants") and Lucia Moniz, who simmer with chemistry and charm
as they form a tight bond without knowing each other's language; Emma
Thompson (1998's "Primary Colors"), whose reaction to her husband's
affair rings with truth and clarity; Liam Neeson (2002's "K-19: The
Widowmaker") and Thomas Sangston, whose winning, brutally honest father
and son relationship garners laughs; and Hugh Grant (2002's "Two Weeks
Notice") and delightful newcomer Martine McCutcheon, whose against-all-odds
romance comes to a satisfying head at the conclusion.
The most genuinely romantic scene belongs to Andrew Lincoln and the
stunning Keira Knightley (2003's "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse
of the Black Pearl"), as he silently professes his undying love for
her on her doorstep through simply written notecards. Less successful
is one character's trek to Wisconsin in search for American girls,
whom he finds in the form of Elisha Cuthbert (2003's "Old School"),
January Jones (2003's "American Wedding"), Ivana Milicevic (2003's
"Down with Love"), Denise Richards (2003's "Scary Movie 3") , and
Shannon Elizabeth (2001's "Thirteen Ghosts"). So far-fetched and over-the-top
are these scenes that you keep expecting it to turn out to be a dream (it isn't).
As a Christmas love story, "Love Actually" is, indeed, romantic and
jubilant enough to become a holiday mainstay for adults. The film's
London setting is beautifully photographed by Michael Coulter (1999's
"Notting Hill") and it plays like a greatest hits of classic Christmas
tunes. Director Richard Curtis is dead set on not wasting a minute
of screen time, plowing forward with the abandon of Christmas carolers
and believing that viewers will not have a moment to even consider
how fluffy and inconsequential the whole thing really is. "Love Actually"
succeeds at this, remaining pleasant and entertaining from beginning
to end. Only once it is over do you unfortunately witness its staying
power evaporate before your very eyes.
Copyright © 2003 Dustin Putman