Movie review by Greg Carlson
Writer-turned-director Richard Curtis, the romantic comedy machine who cranked out the screenplays for “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” seems so smitten with his own cleverness that he forgets to offer his audience any opportunity to catch its breath during “Love Actually,” the filmmaker’s horribly-titled directorial debut. Juggling what feels like an army of popular British screen personalities and a few odd-Yanks-out, “Love Actually” tries to cram too many messy storylines into its padded running time. The result is a crass, shallow, and awfully stale pop-tart of a holiday movie that mistakes its mawkish sentimentalism for genuine emotion.
“Love Actually” drifts from story to story without any clear sense of where it needs to go, but at the center is longtime Curtis-muse Hugh Grant, sporting a coiffure meant to suggest a much more attractive version of Tony Blair and playing – no kidding – the new prime minister of England. His first day on the job, the PM walks into 10 Downing Street and manages to fall in love at first sight with tea girl Natalie (a winning Martine McCutcheon) – a turn of events that brings out the fire in his belly when the lecherous U.S. president (a grinning Billy Bob Thornton) makes a play for her during an official visit.
Meanwhile, the prime minister’s younger sis Karen (Emma Thompson) begins to suspect that her husband Harry (Alan Rickman) might be about to have an affair with his secretary. Another of Harry’s employees, Sarah (Laura Linney, utterly underserved by the story and her director), dreams of mustering the courage to ask out her longtime office crush. Widower Daniel (Liam Neeson) nurses his own broken heart while trying to coach his stepson through a painful bout of puppy love. If that’s not enough, Colin Firth (saddled with arguably the weakest of the film’s segments) plays cuckolded Jamie, a novelist who falls for his Portuguese housekeeper.
And those are only the main plotlines. Curtis just keeps piling it on, with Bill Nighy (delivering the movie’s only antidote to the buckets of treacle) as a crotchety, over-the-hill pop star pimping his latest crappy Christmas single, Keira Knightley as a newlywed who doesn’t realize her husband’s best man carries a torch for her, and Martin Freeman and Joanna Page as a pair of body doubles or soft-core performers – Curtis never really clarifies which – who fall for each other only after they have spent hours with each other sans clothes on the set of a movie. Oh yeah – there is also totally unnecessary thread that follows the moronic goofball who assumes that Wisconsin girls with loose morals will immediately hop into bed with any bloke who speaks with a British accent.
Once Rowan Atkinson shows up, you get the distinct feeling the rest is going to be downhill. Ultimately, Curtis should have held on to the three or four strongest tales and developed them into individual movies. The director is so calculating in the presentation of “feelings” that he forgets his sardine-canned ensemble is left with absolutely no time to adequately explore their characters in any detail. The result is one of the biggest misfires of the year.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/17/03.