It seems to me that there’s probably something wrong—something mean-spirited or bitter or overly cynical—with a person who wouldn’t at least want to like Richard Curtis’ Love Actually. Curtis lays his thesis out right off the bat, when we hear the voice of Hugh Grant, in full-throttle British Jimmy Stewart mode, telling us, “General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed—but I don’t see that. If you look for it, love actually is all around.” Who wouldn’t want to cry, “Hear! Hear!” to that?
And that makes it all the more disappointing that the film isn’t better than it is.
No one can accuse Curtis—the writer of The Tall Guy, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, here directing for the first time—of not covering the subject or failing to look at it from every angle. He throws out a plethora of stories with a dizzying array of characters, and, thanks to his track record, he gets some of the best actors in Britain to play them.
Where to start? Well, there’s the new bachelor prime minister (Grant), who is attracted to a member of his staff (Martine McCutcheon) until he catches her being groped by the visiting U.S. president (Billy Bob Thornton, looking like a gawky teen in his first borrowed suit). This prompts a major diplomatic rebuff to the United States, causing the prime minister’s popularity to soar. (How instructive that Curtis takes a break from his love-is-everywhere theme to remind us of the anti-Americanism of every right-thinking Briton.)
Meanwhile, the prime minister’s sister (Emma Thompson) worries that her husband (Alan Rickman) is being seduced by his secretary. A widower (Liam Neeson) offers romantic advice to his earnest 11-year-old stepson (Thomas Sangster). A writer (Colin Firth) has an attraction to his Portuguese cleaning lady (Lúcia Moniz, a luminous star in the making), who is also attracted to him even though neither can speak the other’s language. A has-been rock singer (Bill Nighy) hopes for a comeback with a smarmy Christmas-themed reworking of “Love Is All Around Me.” The best man (Andrew Lincoln) at the wedding of a happy couple carries a secret torch for the bride (Keira Knightley). A homely lummox (Kris Marshall) blows his savings on a plane ticket to Wisconsin, convinced that American “birds” will find him irresistible. Two shy movie stand-ins (Martin Freeman and Joanna Page) become acquainted while simulating sex on the set of an erotic picture. And so forth.
Curtis is a clever writer. When the magic works (as it did in The Tall Guy and Four Weddings), his cleverness shows itself in real warmth and romantic insight. When it doesn’t (Notting Hill), he comes off as a shallow puppeteer manipulating characters to push an audience’s buttons. In Love Actually, he spends more time manipulating than he does showing insight—well, maybe not more time exactly, but it’s more annoying when he does, and the insight isn’t enough to make up for it. Characters and scenes are contrived and convenient. The love-struck preteen is articulate and self-possessed as only movie kids ever are. The smitten best man shows up to confess his love to the surprised bride in an elaborate charade that will work only if the groom doesn’t answer the door—and Curtis sees to it that he doesn’t.
All these characters and story threads feel sketchy and incomplete, as if Curtis had written four or five dead-end drafts on one theme and then decided to try combining them all. But as a first-time director, he’s overwhelmed while trying to juggle all the elements. Curtis is attempting to make a Robert Altman movie, and that sort of thing isn’t easy; even Altman misfires much of the time.
Still, it’s hard not to want Curtis and all these marvelous actors to succeed. In fact, I had the nagging feeling that Curtis is counting on our goodwill, figuring we’ll convince ourselves that the movie’s as good as we want it to be so that people won’t think we’re mean-spirited or overly cynical. This makes Love Actually an oxymoron—a cynically romantic movie.