I can only presume that the British calendar is so uniquely screwy that it allows for a Christmas movie to open a week after Halloween. Or maybe Love Actually is just in a universe of its own… one in which the prime minister is inaugurated in November and where an adverb can be used to modify a noun.
But a little oddness is forgivable: Directing a movie is a strange place for Richard Curtis, who’s written umpteen Brit-friendly movies and TV shows over the years but hasn’t directed one, until now.
Little surprise then that Love Actually plays like a Richard Curtis Greatest Hits compilation. The film comprises nine major and barely-connected stories (as near as I can count) revolving around love and the weeks before Christmas. There’s a morose singleton (Laura Linney) looking for love from a co-worker [Bridget Jones's Diary]. In the most enchanting vignette, there’s the new Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) falling in love with a foul-mouthed servant (Martine McCutcheon) [Notting Hill in reverse]. There’s even one wedding and one funeral [Four Weddings And a Funeral]. And there’s Rowan Atkinson [Bean, Blackadder, et al.].
And there’s more — much, much more. From a company boss (Alan Rickman) being tempted away from his wife (Emma Thompson) to another guy (Colin Firth) who finds his soulmate in a housekeeper (that’s two men falling for maids in one movie!) to a pair of movie set stand-ins who find love under the lights as they coldly play out a sex scene for the cameras. Digesting the rest of the movie would be close to impossible and counter-productive, since it would rob Love Actually of its charm.
Too bad then that Love Actually is so derivative that it ultimately turns into a severe case of déjà vu. You sit there (for over two hours) wondering what movie was she in? and where have I seen this story before? Eventually the answer to both of those questions ends up being some other movie with Hugh Grant in it.
Not that I don’t like Hugh. He’s a great comic actor and probably the best part of Love Actually — though Rickman, McCutcheon, and the effervescent Bill Nighy as a faded rock star trying to make a comeback with a cheesy Christmas song all give him a run for his money. The problem is that Curtis has overstuffed this movie with so many storylines that no single star gets a moment to shine. Just when you’re getting into Grant’s entanglement, you are whisked away to Liam Neeson crying over his dead wife. It’s jarring and it’s just too much. Love Actually is never hard to follow — because Curtis doesn’t even bother to make these stories connect beyond a few irrelevant coincidences — but it is hard to really care about three dozen main characters, each with eight minutes of screen time. There’s a fair amount of dead weight here, and Curtis could have easily crafted a stronger package by excising the weaker plotlines. (And by the way, you should dash any hope of taking the kids to this holiday film: It’s chock-full of nudity and sexual situations.)
Curtis’s gags are generally spot-on, particularly after the film finds its footing. A touching finale makes up for some of the earlier dragging, and cameos galore — at least half a dozen — will entertain the movie snobs in the audience. Just don’t go and spoil it by looking up the credits on the Internet.
Raise your hand if you like pie.