- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2003

“Love Actually,” a jumbo-sized, star-studded Christmas-card foldout from English humorist Richard Curtis, the screenwriter of “The Tall Guy,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Notting Hill,” sounded like it might prove adorable to a fault. Actually, it’s pseudo-adorable to a near-insufferable fault.

Making his feature directing debut, Mr. Curtis has confused quantity with quality and condescension with seasonal benevolence. Strewing subplots and minor characters with reckless abandon, Mr. Curtis makes it difficult to synopsize the whole moth-eaten mosaic without shortchanging the superficialities and gaucheries in one sector or another.

The movie begins by articulating a persuasive thesis: “Love is everywhere,” reiterated as “If you look for it … love actually is all around.” Mr. Curtis even plays an early ace by using Bill Nighy as a lewd and groggy rocker called Billy Mack, who is having trouble remembering the lyric while recording Elvis Presley’s “Christmas Is All Around.” Billy’s episodes are meant to celebrate his partnership with a long-suffering manager, Joe, played by Gregor Fisher, and it’s easier to find them endearing than most of the amorous or heart-tugging combinations.

Hugh Grant is cast as a bachelor prime minister who seems to have a knack for saying the wrong things but gets an improving crush on a 10 Downing Street functionary named Natalie (Marlene McCutcheon), a sweet-natured underdog from the lower middle classes. He hints at volcanic potency by imitating Tom Cruise’s interlude of lip-syncing and gyrating from “Risky Business.”

A widower named Daniel (Liam Neeson) is distracted from his grief by a lovelorn stepson, Sam (Thomas Sangster), who has a crush on an American classmate. A jilted writer named Jamie (Colin Firth) seeks consolation at a hideaway in the south of France, where his work is interrupted by instant infatuation with a Portuguese maid, Aurelia (Lucia Moniz, one of the intriguing new faces in the cast).

An editor named Harry (Alan Rickman) is vamped by a shameless secretary, Mia (Heike Makatsch, another exotic discovery), who proves so tempting that it threatens his marriage to Karen (Emma Thompson), a mother of two. After her suspicions are aroused, Karen must suffer through an excruciating set piece of self-pity: Miss Thompson weeps in her bedroom while being serenaded by Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.”

It’s debatable whether Miss Thompson or Laura Linney ends up with the cruelest lump of coal in her Richard Curtis Christmas stocking. A colleague of Mr. Rickman’s unfaithful Harry, Miss Linney’s Sarah has been nursing a crush on an office hunk called Karl (Rodrigo Santoro). On the brink of consummation (Miss Linney even strips for the occasion), the phone rings and we discover that being a Florence Nightingale repeatedly thwarts Sarah’s love life.

The aftermath of a jubilant interracial marriage between Juliet and Peter (embarrassing cosmetic roles for Keira Knightley of “Pirates of the Caribbean” and Chiwetel Ejiofor of “Dirty Pretty Things”) is clouded by a lovesick best man, Mark (Andrew Lincoln). He ends up silently confessing his crush on Juliet to the new bride herself, and she’s so angelically duncey that you’re not certain she won’t elope for the holidays and return a beatific bigamist.

The impulse to mock Mr. Curtis as a trite and clumsy love-monger grows stronger with every episode and update. “Love Actually” demonstrates that he can spread synthetic affection thin when he sets his mind to it, but his methods of playing favorites, setting traps and neglecting priorities are more insulting than ingenious.


TITLE: “Love Actually”

RATING: R (Frequent sexual candor and vulgarity; occasional profanity, nudity and simulated intercourse, deliberately facetious in some scenes)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Richard Curtis.

RUNNING TIME: 128 minutes


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