Given its status as an elaborate holiday confection, it's simplest to think of "Love Actually" as a box of fine chocolates filled with a variety of centers. All are tasty, no small thing, but some are tastier than others. And while some quickly become cherished favorites, others make you wonder: "What were they thinking with that one?"
As written and directed by Richard Curtis, "Love Actually" is an ensemble romantic comedy with more than 20 characters and so many plot lines even the detailed press material can't manage to list them all. It's got a fine cast, including such known quantities as Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Colin Firth, Laura Linney and Liam Neeson, but, best of all, it's got Curtis.
One of the most reliable delights of recent British film and TV, Curtis wrote the scripts for "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Notting Hill," co-wrote "Bridget Jones's Diary" and helped create such British television landmarks as "Blackadder" and "Bean."
What Curtis brought to those projects as well as to "Love Actually" is a sharp sense of character comedy combined with a very human touch. His feeling for people is as genuine as his wit, and he manages it all with a light-on-its-feet casualness, a sense that none of this has to be any kind of big deal to be successful. It's typical of Curtis' engaging sensibility that he says he came up with the idea of making a film that encompasses so many distinct groups of characters because at the rate films are made, if he didn't do them all at once "I would spend the rest of my life" getting them on screen.
However in this, his first time behind the camera, Curtis couldn't resist branching out from the habitual lightness of his earlier fare, and a few sections of "Love Actually" have more serious themes and less-than-jolly resolutions.
It turns out that as a writer and director, Curtis' gift does not extend quite as far into that area as he would like, and stretching himself to all those unconnected scenarios inevitably means that even with the lighter ones some are more successful than others. But the bits that do work are so funny and satisfying that audiences may be willing to simply bide their time and hum "Rule, Britannia" until the good parts return to the screen.
"Love Actually," which begins five weeks before Christmas and goes week by week until the holiday, starts with the private voice-over thoughts of Britain's prime minister (Hugh Grant). He tells us that though "general opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed," it just takes a few warm moments at an airport's arrivals gate (security checkpoints likely being another matter) to prove to him that "love actually is all around."
Love may be all around, but if "Love Actually" is any indication, it can also cause all kinds of problems. Love refuses to arrive without obstacles, rivalries, cross purposes, hesitations and awful embarrassments. It can make little boys feel small and grown men feel smaller. Even if he's the country's newly elected prime minister.
As played by the ever-appealing Grant, the prime minister is -- surprise -- a witty and sophisticated sort, agreeing to meet the 10 Downing Street household staff because he'll do "anything to put off running the country." Just one look at the fetching tea lady (Martine McCutcheon of British TV's "EastEnders"), however, has him as tongue-tied as any rural swain. Definitely not tongue-tied is veteran rocker Billy Mack, trying for his umpteenth comeback by recording the standard "Love Is All Around" as "Christmas Is All Around." "Wouldn't it be great," he enthuses to a stunned DJ, "if No. 1 this Christmas wasn't some smug teenager but an old, ex-heroin addict searching for a comeback at any price?"
As a riff on all the hard-living rockers of yore, egocentric Billy is the film's funniest character, and it's a treat beyond treats to see veteran British actor Bill Nighy (memorable in "Lawless Heart") realize the potential in the role and deliver a comic performance that will completely put you away.
Equally satisfying in a more unashamedly romantic way is the story of Jamie (Colin Firth), a jilted author with no foreign-language facility who retreats to the south of France and takes on a severe-looking housekeeper named Aurelia (Lucia Moniz) who speaks only Portuguese.
Though the result of this episode is hardly in doubt, it is characteristic of Curtis' gift at its best that he can bring all measure of sharp humor, unforced emotion and delightful surprises to a story whose outline doesn't seem to merit a second glance.
Given how well Curtis works when he's at his best, it's frustrating when other sequences do not measure up. Some segments -- a young man goes to Wisconsin to become a god of sex, a young bride played by Keira Knightley gets caught between her husband and his best friend, two stand-ins meet during a movie sex scene -- are just OK. Others are mixed: Thomas Sangster is excellent as a small boy in love, while Neeson is leaden as his newly bereaved stepfather. And others still -- Linney as a woman with a crush on a co-worker; Thompson and Rickman as marrieds potentially in trouble -- push too hard for a seriousness that isn't there.
Though it seems unduly schematic to break the story down so nakedly into its components, the film's "love is a good thing" theme is so generic it makes that segmentation inevitable. Still, even the unsuccessful sequences have their moments -- a delicious cameo by Rowan Atkinson as a department store clerk is one -- and though it would be dishonest to call this an unqualified success, it would be churlish not to tip the hat to "Love Actually's" genuine charm. Maybe humming "Rule, Britannia" isn't such a bad idea after all.
MPAA rating: R for sexuality, nudity and language
Times guidelines: Some of the sexuality is fairly candid, but it's all good-natured.
Bill Nighy...Billy Mack
Hugh Grant...The Prime Minister
Universal Studios and Studio Canal present a Working Title production, in association with DNA Films, released by Universal. Writer-director Richard Curtis. Producers Duncan Kenworthy, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner. Cinematographer Michael Coulter. Editor Nick Moore. Costume designer Joanna Johnston. Music Craig Armstrong. Production designer Jim Clay. Art directors Rod McLean, Justin Warbuton-Brown. Set decorator Caroline Smith. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
In general release