Sunday, November 25, 2018

Confession: I like Love, Actually

This is the time of the year when some bizarre form of snarky group-think manifests itself, and a lot of people start trash Tweeting about Love, Actually. So I feel compelled to reprint my original 2003 review of the film — which, actually, I quite liked.  

Richard Curtis, the screenwriter of Notting Hill and Four Weddings and Funeral, graduates to multi-hyphenate status with Love, Actually, and it's altogether appropriate to grant him a passing grade for his directorial debut. An affectingly seriocomic crazy-quilt of overlapping love stories in and around London, Curtis’ hugely enjoyable comedy-drama strikes a delicate balance between silliness and seriousness, sentiment and sardonic wit, even as it warns that not every love story ends happily ever after.

It’s a given, of course, that if we're dealing with a scenario contrived by Curtis, Hugh Grant must figure into the mix. Sure enough, the nimbly self-effacing farceur is first among equals in the ensemble cast, gracefully playing a newly elected, vaguely Tony Blair-ish prime minister who's conveniently unattached as he moves into No. 10 Downing Street. He's scarcely through the front door before he's distracted by Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), a chipper household staffer who's all the more delectable for not being supermodel-svelte.

Truth to tell, there's a bit of meat on her bones. And while she wears it well, she’s more than a little self-conscious, thanks to a churlish ex-boyfriend who made pointed reference to “thighs the size of tree trunks” before his departure.

The PM, savoring the pleasure of her company, graciously offers to punish the bounder: “You know, being prime minister, I could just have him killed.” (Not for the first time in his career, Grant seizes upon a mildly amusing line and, with perfect-pitch timing, makes it sound flat-out hilarious.) Natalie – flashing just a hint of a smile – responds: “Thank you, sir. I'll think about it.”

Elsewhere amid the entangled plotlines, other romance-in-the-workplace stories proceed apace. Harry (Alan Rickman) is happily married to Karen (Emma Thompson) – who just happens to be the sister of the newly elected Prime Minister – but he can't help responding to the none-too-subtle blandishments of Mia (Heike Makatsch), his aggressively adoring secretary. Jamie (Colin Firth), a jilted thriller writer, flees his unfaithful girlfriend to complete a novel at his villa in the south of France, where, when he's not plotting some character's untimely demise, he falls in love – slowly, sweetly -- with Aurelia (Lucia Moniz), his Portuguese housekeeper. That she can't speak much English, and he can't speak any Portuguese, is at worst a minor impediment to the blossoming romance.

Not all storylines are created equal. The ironically shy and formal interplay between two body doubles (Martin Freeman, Joanna Page) for stars in a sexy melodrama never amounts to anything more than a lame running gag. Laura Linney is pleasingly plucky as a transplanted American who pines for a hunky office co-worker, but she's undone by a plot device – i.e., a choking family tie – that's introduced far too late in the proceedings. A romantic triangle involving Keira Knightley, Chiwetel Ejiofer and Andrew Lincoln is uncomfortably closer to a stalker story. And while Liam Neeson hits all the right emotional notes as a recently widowed stepfather who offers romantic advice to his lovestruck 11-year-old stepson (Thomas Sangster), neither he nor Sangster can do enough to encourage a rooting interest in either of their characters.

On the other hand, Kris Marshall is uproarious as an unlucky-in-love doofus who suspects (or, more precisely, hopes) that his Brit accent will be catnip to the ladies in the nether realms of Wisconsin. (“I am Colin, God of Sex. I'm just on the wrong continent, that's all.”) And Bill Nighy (Still Crazy) is tremendously funny as he more or less unites the disparate elements of Love, Actually as Billy Mack, a burnt-out rock star who shamelessly attempts to re-ignite his stardom by doing a sappily Christmas-themed version of a golden oldie.

No comments: