Love Actually

November, 2003, Comedy

Directed by:Richard Curtis

Starring:Alan Rickman, Bill Nighy, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Keira Knightley, Rowan Atkinson, Laura Linney, and Martine McCutcheon

How do you like your treacle? With a bit of gastro-intestinal stress perhaps? If so, you'll love this sprawling, episodic comedy/drama from screenwriter and first-time director Richard Curtis, whose labors in contemporary British romantic film have provided audiences a sugar-rush with Three Weddings & a Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones' Diary. Depending on how you count, Curtis serves up at least 10 relationships, (marital, familial, adulterous, juvenile & sexually-commercial) in this Chaucerian tale of love in all its many guises. If you have a high tolerance for daytime soap characters and the irrelevant, unnecessary profanity of Broadway comedies, you'll love it.

In his earlier screenplays, Curtis showed a modicum of restraint on his more egregious tendencies towards the maudlin, injecting bit of well-placed self-mocking humor to take the edge off the saccharine--but given the chance to direct, all restraint is lost. The result is this pastiche of skits better suited to television; prime-time smarminess salted with cable-style nudity and 4-letter dialogue.

A bevy of English stars are employed-Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, along with the odd Yank; Billy Bob Thornton, Laura Linney and a quartet of pneumatically-engineered female airheads right out of a Budweiser beer commercial.  With no bow to subtlety permitted, they examine the joys, pitfalls, heartaches and triumphs of l'amour--in the director's view, love may be "a many splendored thing", but it's dreadfully hard to tell--he out to steal hearts here, and succeeds only in on insulting the intelligence of his audience.

Grant plays a Blair look-alike prime minister in love with his tea lady while Firth reprises his Bridget Jones persona, presenting yet another bumbling Brit male longing for love with his Portuguese housekeeper across a predictable language barrier. Linney pines for an impossibly handsome co-worker while sacrificing herself to familial obligations, while Neeson buries his wife, (in the most cloying funeral scene ever put on film) before coaching his pre-pubescent stepson through a crush on a classmate who sings in the school's Christmas pageant like a future Star Search finalist. Rickman squints and scowls his way right out of the arms of bright, sensitive and dutiful wife Thompson and into the calculating embrace of his doe-eyed secretary, whose lewd-temptress come-ons would be grounds for sexual harassment litigation anywhere in the Western World. And so it goes, a rondelet of blatantly calculating love, lust and forced laughter… 

Curtis still writes clever lines and creates amusing scenes; with the talent at his disposal here, there are bound to be a few occasions when the recipe actually works and there are; Grant's turn as a John Travolta look-alike in the halls of 10 Downing Street, Firth quietly cursing his instinctive courtesy at an airport cabstand, Linney's reaction to her about-to-be lover's first kiss--but Curtis can't resist revisiting his own cleverness over and over again until all the spontaneity has been drained off, leaving nothing but a growing irritation at his relentless appetitive for waxing cute. The stand-ins working in an erotic movie for example, are mildly amusing once but tiresome the 4th or 5th time Curtis returns to them and Bill Nighy's over-the-hill rocker, all brazen self-mockery in the movies' first scene, grows more predictable and less interesting with each subsequent appearance. Curtis overworks his ideas; despite an excess of plotlines, the film feels padded and the self-effacing charm of the screenwriter's previous work gives way to awkward boorishness. If you're not doing Animal House, why so often employ that movie's tone?  Where a light touch is required by the material, the director employs a very heavy hand indeed.

Curtis tries to balance all this sugar-coated gaiety with calculating references to 9/11 and pair of stories about the dark side of romantic love, tasking Emma Thompson and Laura Linney with the thankless job of breaking the audiences' hearts while other members of the cast go for sight gags and drawing-room banter-- but it's a case of pathos descending directly into bathos--and never have an accomplished actress's naked breasts been so badly served up for less relevant purpose than Linney's are here. As the endless final credits roll, you feel voyeuristically unclean rather than entertainingly refreshed. 

The Verdict? Curtis needs to take a fresh look at his own talents and employ them with a more typically English sense of modesty.


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