It's some measure of writer-director Richard Curtis's sheer force of will with Love Actually that while I harbor serious doubts that it's a good movie, I feel compelled to award it a qualified recommendation. Why? Aside from gathering a sprawling, who's who ensemble cast--including Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Colin Firth, Laura Linney, Liam Neeson, and Keira Knightley--Curtis frames his amusing Love Actually with a clever and powerful subtextual metaphor for the needs of a post-9/11 world.
Love Actually represents Curtis's debut behind the camera after penning Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and the Bridget Jones films, all of which star good-luck charm Grant. Wisely, Curtis sets his resolutely, unabashedly feel-good movie at Christmastime. Appropriately, Curtis treats the audience as children, for better and worse. The story is essentially facile and shamelessly sappy, but also devotes innocent faith to its look at humanity's capacity for unconditional love in its various forms: familial, platonic, and romantic.
Grant plays the new British Prime Minister, a bachelor drawn to his lovely assistant (Martine McCutcheon). Thompson and Rickman's marrieds with children contend with a potential affair. Firth plays a divorcee taken with his new maid, for whom English is a barrier. Linney's responsibilities to her mentally chanllenged brother test her opportunity to pass the torch she's been carrying to a cute co-worker. Widower Liam Neeson must counsel his lovestruck young son, and newlywed Keira Knightley discovers the jealousy of her husband's best friend. As Curtis gradually reveals (and suggests with common Thames-side walks), his characters interrelate in ways beyond their immediate apparent love interests.
The film's greatest failing is its exhaustiveness of character, which spreads the story all too thin. None of the characters gets full due, which encourages Curtis to be haphazard and lazy, as in his contrivance of conflict for Linney and her would-be beau. The story sometimes proceeds awkwardly and usually superficially, but the fine, likeable cast goes a long way to mask the narrative crisis. Like Woody Allen's New York ensembles, this London bunch mostly represents the entitled neurotic class.
As the de facto pivot point of the film, Grant narrates the film: "General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that. Seems to me that love is everywhere...If you look for it, I've got a sneaking suspicion that love actually is all around." After addressing the undeniable manifestations of love in an airport--while alluding to global tests of faith since 9/11--Curtis returns in the end to Heathrow to pointedly violate "security" on behalf of love (after all, Curtis's characters frequently refer to Christmas as the time to take a chance on love). Though naive, Curtis's social reference flirts with profundity by answering symbolic hate with symbolic love.
The film's M.V.P. is undoubtedly Bill Nighy as Billy Mack, "the bad grandad of rock and roll." A hilarious cross between Mick Jagger and Warren Beatty's Bulworth, Billy insists on telling the truth about his crappy new Christmas single (a sickly sweet rehash of "Love is All Around" that, winkingly or not, serves as a surrogate for the film itself) on a whirlwind promotional tour; in doing so, Billy spins straw into a gold record. Curtis isn't hiding anything about Love Actually, either, and he's likely to laugh all the way to the bank as audiences of all ages and loving relationships pay up for a bit more Christmas cheer. If only the whole world could afford it...