British humor goes Hollywood

Special to The Times

In the London-set ensemble comedy "Love Actually," there's a sequence in which Hugh Grant's eager-to-please prime minister goes from single politician pining for his secretary to impassioned defender of the crown. At a press conference, he takes an unexpectedly public stand for all things British in the face of oppressive American might, in the form of Billy Bob Thornton's bullying president.

Grant invokes Churchill, Shakespeare and, winkingly, soccer star David Beckham as homeboys made good worldwide. Suddenly a movie ostensibly about gooey Christmas feelings seems to have taken a nationalistic turn. Is this writer-director Richard Curtis telling British Prime Minister Tony Blair to quit toadying to President Bush? Or is it about portraying Bush as a swaggering cowboy in need of a reality check?

Or is it a metaphorical case of droll British humor trying to assert itself at a time when a particular brand of American comedy -- star-powered, jokey and sometimes crass -- seems to have a stranglehold on movie screens? I vote for the last option.

American audiences have been gradually taking in the heart-fluttering charms of the U.K.-born "Love Actually," which devotes more than two hours to the romantic fumblings of 20 disparate individuals. (It's not yet a breakout hit, but word-of-mouth on the film since its Nov. 7 release has been strong). But the big, crazy moviegoing money is being thrown at the Hollywood-grown "Elf," a punchy 1 1/2-hour barrage of good-natured silliness built around a breakout Yank goofball, Will Ferrell, as a fish-out-of-water North Poler making his way in New York City.

Both films specialize in humor that at times falls neatly into the cultural niches we usually associate with each country's comic streak: Sweet-and-sour insults coupled with Dickensian character sprawl give "Love Actually" its English snap, and the zany optimism of a can-do central hero translates into old-fashioned American spirit in "Elf." But each of these Christmas comedies borrows from the other's repertoire: "Love Actually" is a lot starrier and "Elf" a lot more communal than each film's tradition suggests.

With "Elf," former "Saturday Night Live" star Ferrell has emerged as a movie comedy force to be reckoned with, alongside Jim Carrey and Mike Myers. Naturally, the comic actor's utterly guileless performance is crucial to the film's success, in much the way a Carrey comedy depends on its rubberized star to determinedly wring laughs out of his every on-screen minute.

But in America's star-centered comedy world, the one whose name is above the title is usually the only sanctioned laugh-getter. Veteran comedy writer Larry Gelbart blames the star system for turning American comedy into a winner-take-all construct. "These people command such salaries that you rarely ever see any other gifted people in the movie with them, certainly none that can be competitive," Gelbart says. "The British are doing drawing-room comedies and we're doing bathroom comedies."

In "Elf," though, a feeling emerges that Ferrell, for all his boundless comic ingenuity, is merely one part of the film's larger storytelling scheme. Director Jon Favreau was incisive enough to surround Ferrell's childlike Buddy with a raft of winning, vivid characters who get a chance to discover their own comedy in interacting with the gonzo star. In the opening Santaland section, Bob Newhart's Papa Elf is, well, the Bob Newhart we know and love: a deadpan rock to anchor Buddy's gee-whiz loopiness.

Once the action shifts to New York, James Caan brilliantly picks up the reins as the character we have to identify with: the guy whose life is upended by a ceaselessly peppy, yellow-tighted freak claiming to be his son. Instead of a wall for Ferrell to just bounce off, then, we watch Caan's tight-lipped bitterness go from being funny to being genuinely sad and confused.

Other memorable turns include Zooey Deschanel's dryly witty love interest, Faizon Love's harried department store manager and Peter Dinklage's hot-tempered children's book author. By giving these actors chewable moments, the filmmakers create a world of recognizable people for Ferrell to roam among and clash with, strengthening the overall sense of humor and turning "Elf" into one of the more slyly democratic star vehicles in years.

Then there's what the star is doing. Ferrell doesn't wink at the audience the way Carrey, Mike Myers and Adam Sandler do to reinforce a certain persona. Closer in temperament to a British character actor like Peter Sellers than to a ham like Jerry Lewis, Ferrell internalizes Buddy so that he is hilariously oblivious to the gawkers in his path. It's a form of humor that writer-actor Ricky Gervais of the hit BBC America show "The Office" classifies as "blind spot" comedy.

"It's been big in British humor for 50 years," Gervais once said about laughs mined from a character's total inability to perceive the way everyone else perceives him. "That can be anything from 'People think I'm attractive' to 'People think I'm funny,' and the juxtaposition is the funny thing. It's that gap between reality and delusion."

British comedy has usually been the province of community-oriented comedy -- how a particular situation affects an extended cast of oddballs -- and rarely about shining and polishing a larger-than-life marquee name. One felt cheated, almost, when a master of disguise such as Sellers or Alec Guinness opted to play merely a single character in a movie.

And while the American comedy institution "Saturday Night Live" churned out talents who left the roost seeking individual stardom, British originals Monty Python saw value in staying a collective when turning their satiric sights toward cinema.

So it was exciting that even with bona fide star Grant ostensibly heading the '90s British hits "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Notting Hill," those films' true enchantments arose from the cluster of eccentric friends, loved ones and family that buzzed about the leads. If not as dark or political as the beloved Ealing Studio comedies of the '50s, Curtis' romances nevertheless carry a bond with those group-oriented charmers.

"Love Actually," in its sentimental grandness, seems brewed to appeal to both countries' moviegoers. It's an ensemble, but one of star turns, from the twinkle in widower father Liam Neeson's eye in helping his son woo a classmate, to Grant's absolute-power-charms-absolutely head of state dancing solo to the Pointer Sisters, to the movie star dazzle of rising Brit phenom Keira Knightley, whose beauty renders her husband's best friend speechless.

This is not the steely gray, class-obsessed Britain of, well, just about any other United Kingdom film but, no matter what the movie's America-taunting prime minister might suggest, a brightly lighted, crescendo-scored ode to love's luminescence that would seem right at home on a Hollywood studio's development slate.

Curtis still serves up a smattering of keenly understated jesting throughout, but the breadth of human peculiarity that has been part and parcel of British comedy from P.G. Wodehouse to a show like "The Office" are kept to a minimum in "Love Actually." Only Bill Nighy, as a wrinkled, caustically funny rock 'n' roll has-been, serves to remind us of the joys of a twisted Peter Cook sketch or a sly Ealing farce. This may sound like a marquee-addled American talking, but it's the blind spot of this overstuffed Christmas movie that Nighy isn't the star on the top of the tree.

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