Remember the old ABC series “Love, American Style”? The recipe for this extravagant romantic comedy from writer-director Richard Curtis (“Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary”) is to take what amount to a few episodes of that anthology show and shuffle them together while giving all the characters British accents. “Love Actually” thus ratchets up those previous pictures’ comic sensibility to astronomical levels by offering, all at once, multiple versions of the same story about the perils and difficulties–and wonder, of course– of falling in love.
The result is like watching a dozen or so ultra-cute mini-movies simultaneously. Unfortunately, almost all of them are bad: the word “actually” in the title is especially perverse, since there’s not a moment in the entire thing that’s remotely genuine. In the short (but not short enough) span allotted to each little tale, there’s clearly no opportunity for characterization or subtlety. So Curtis draws the various couples in the broadest strokes and is content to go for the easiest laughs and smarmiest sentiment at every turn. Those who found the sweeter-than-pie anecdotes that marked “Love American Style” the most darling things in the world will embrace this movie. Others will feel their hearts sinking twenty minutes in as the shallowness of the piece grows all too apparent.
It’s a chore merely to calculate the number of story threads being juggled here. The one with the highest profile involves Hugh Grant as a stylish newly-elected prime minister–definitely a Tony Blair type, though without the family baggage. Grant, looking even more flustered than Blair does when asked about Iraqi WMDs, immediately falls into boyishly charming lust for one of his assistants, Natalie (Martine McCutcheon, playing the curiously irresistible commoner well enough). Meanwhile the PM’s sister Karen (a bland Emma Thompson) has to deal with the fact that her husband Harry (leering Alan Rickman) is being pursued by his seductive secretary (dominatrix-wannabe Heike Makatsch)–and he seems all too compliant. At the same time one of Harry’s underlings, Sarah (a pallid Laura Linney), pines away for her studly co-worker Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) but is too shy to approach him; she’s also encumbered by the demands of a mentally-troubled brother. Moving on, we have Jamie (Colin Firth, doing a broad sheepish routine) who goes off to the continent after being cheated on by his wife (or girlfriend, perhaps) and falls for his maid Aurelia (Lucia Moniz), with whom, however, he can’t communicate because she speaks only Portuguese (chuckle, chuckle). And Daniel (Liam Neeson), whose wife has just died; he has to deal not only with his own grief but with the infatuation of his adorable little stepson (Thomas Sangster) for a girl in his class. And Juliet (Keira Knightley), who’s just married Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and is shocked to find herself the object of affection on the part of his best friend Mark (Andrew Lincoln), who she’d assumed disliked her. As if all this weren’t enough, there are a few additional stray subplots. One involves Colin (Kris Marshall), a lanky, love-starved fellow who goes off to America in the belief that his accent will make all the babes fall for him; another brings together John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page) as movie stand-ins who strike up a relationship while groping professionally in a succession of suggestive poses; and a third focuses on Billy Mack (Bill Nighy), a has-been rock-and-roller cynically promoting a sappy Christmas song he and his beefy manager are hoping will restore his career.
If it’s exhausting recounting all these little comedy-dramas, it’s more so watching them–especially because only the Nighy episodes have any real spark. Mack is such a raunchy, crude figure that his interruptions alone add some fizz to the otherwise flabby proceedings. Of course, even here the humor is of the naughty, rather than satirically biting, variety–the kind of stuff that will make older viewers blush a bit while nudging one another in the ribs–but at least it stands out from the parade of lovey-dovey fantasies otherwise on display. The worst of the lot, excepting the moronic John-and-Judy stuff, which is quite beneath contempt, is probably the longest–the prime minister thread–not only because it’s the most inane (here’s a world leader who seems to have nothing better to do than pine away over a secretary) but because it features the most unpleasant twist–a visit from a U.S. president (a snotty Billy Bob Thornton) who appears intended to represent both the lip-smacking lechery of a Bill Clinton and the shark-like arrogance of a George Bush. It’s by facing down the president on some matter too trivial to be revealed to the audience and staking out his independence from American control that the PM becomes a national hero. Sure. Most of the other episodes, by contrast, are just cloying and empty.
It remains only to point out that “Love Actually” has been spiffily produced in every technical department, though Craig Armstrong’s insistently bouncy score can grate on the nerves. The candy-colored result certainly suits the material, which positively oozes sweetness. The result will probably divide audiences right down the middle, between those who consider it wonderfully charming and those who find it an incessantly irritating attempt to tickle us to death. For those of us who fall into the latter category, “Love Actually” will seem bad, really.