If you want to be a big cranky-pants Scrooge, go ahead and walk out of Love Actually, the new romantic comedy from screenwriter/first-time director Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’ Diary). After all, it isn’t perfect. Curtis stuffs at least 10 love stories and 15 principal characters into two hours, and the result is a hodgepodge of feel-good tales (some more entertaining than others) that offer the message that love conquers all… or at least it should.
Curtis’ unflaggingly generous film opens with the juxtaposition of two holiday scenes. A montage of people greeting their loved ones at London’s Heathrow Airport stands for the true spirit of Christmas (friends and family members hug and kiss, as Hugh Grant’s voiceover reminds us that, in times of tragedy, such as after September 11, people’s first instinct is to express their love). Just as you’re feeling all warm and fuzzy, the film cuts to a recording studio where aging rock musician Billy Mack (hilariously portrayed by Bill Nighy) massacres The Troggs’ “Love is All Around,” attempting to turn it into a hit entitled “Christmas is All Around” (“So if you really love Christmas,” he croons, after a few slip-ups, “Come on and let it snow!”). Billy, self-aware and cynical, represents the corny, consumerist side of Christmas.
Though Love Actually acknowledges this side, it prefers to do so with gentle humor, and to view the holidays as a magical time during which you can confess your feelings to the one you love and things will work out beautifully. Love occurs in obviously sweet situations, such as 11-year-old Sam’s (the adorable Thomas Sangster) love for a glamorous, talented classmate (Olivia Olson), as well as less obvious ones, such as craggy Billy’s platonic but undeniable love for his portly, devoted manager (Gregor Fisher). The film also postulates (though not entirely successfully) that pure-hearted romances can develop under circumstances that (maybe especially in the post-Monica Lewinsky U.S.) make many viewers squirm: three relationships develop between women and their bosses, including one between England’s newly-elected Prime Minister (Grant) and charming, potty-mouthed assistant Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), whose primary responsibility at 10 Downing Street seems to be fetching tea and biscuits.
On occasion, the film allows a jaded sensibility to worm its way into this otherwise picturesque world. Office romances provide opportunity for this, such as when the U.S. president (Billy Bob Thornton) visits the Prime Minister. Wasting no time with trivialities like diplomacy or conversation, he instantly makes a sleazy pass at Natalie, who appears incapable of refusing him, bringing up questions of power imbalance that you’d much rather not ponder in a light-hearted holiday comedy. Another burgeoning office affair features Harry (Alan Rickman), who makes only the feeblest attempt to fend off the advances of his absurdly suggestive, leering secretary Mia (Heike Makatsch). This unromantic, unsexy pairing never rings true, though it does lead to the more interesting story of Harry’s devastated wife Karen (beautifully played by Emma Thompson). Karen is one of the few characters not offered an opportunity for blissful love; she has to cope with her pain and humiliation in private and get on with the business of raising her two children.
More often, however, the film sticks to its “You can’t control whom you love and you’ll never be complete unless you at least make a go at it” premise. Sarah (Laura Linney), one of the film’s most affecting characters, fights such an obvious internal battle between repression and unfulfilled passion that it’s impossible not to root for her. She has pined for her sexy co-worker Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) throughout the two years they’ve worked together, though other obligations (namely, to her handicapped and institutionalized brother) make it heartbreakingly difficult for her to pursue him. Still, as soon as she even contemplates asking him out, he appears at her side at an office party and requests a dance.
Curtis doesn’t try to pretend that this fortuity is realistic. He has made a remarkably self-aware film; it manages to be both a romantic comedy and a parody of romantic comedy. As Sam informs his stepdad Daniel (Liam Neeson) right off the bat, no one gets together “until the end.” And, in a delightfully offbeat storyline, horny lad Colin (Kris Marshall) travels to Wisconsin, convinced that American girls are less uptight and will most likely sleep with him just because they think his accent is cute. Lo and behold, at the first bar he tries, beautiful, able-bodied females (including Elisha Cuthbert) swarm him and practically rub themselves up and down his body in their excitement at being so close to a real live Englishman. In this film, anyone can have a happy ending.
Love Actually is cheerful and undeniably romantic and, despite its flaws, you’d be hard-pressed to sit through the credits without smiling. Anyone who can watch tiny Sam run with all his might to proclaim his agonizing, 11-year-old love without getting verklempt either has the Grinch’s two-sizes-too-small heart or needs a visit from the ghost of Christmas Future.