Big, Wet Kiss

Richard Curtis is in Love with love, so what's new?

With its soundtrack stockpiled with songs of romance and Christmas and a screenplay by the man who wrote Bridget Jones's Diary, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, it's appropriate Love Actuallyfeels less like a brand-new movie than a greatest-hits compendium. It offers nothing new and instead makes do with presenting the warmed-over like something pulled fresh from the oven; it's comfort food for the holidays, easily digested and passed before the new year sets in and you resolve to swear off such rich and unhealthy edibles as this. It delivers precisely what you'd expect from hopeful romantic Richard Curtis, whose screenplays have birthed the flickering lights that have sparked a million (or thereabouts) first kisses, and does so in spades. Curtis serves this time not only as writer but also director, which means we're presented with the unadulterated, undiluted, unabashed Richard Curtis--nearly a dozen couples instead of just one, thus upping the love quotient to guarantee a Christmas movie that plays in the multiplex till Valentine's Day.

There is no summarizing this movie; it's a series of vignettes featuring dozens of players held together by Hugh Grant's opening voiceover about how, if you look for it, "love actually is all around," which immediately shoots up the warning flag that any film mentioning its own title within the first five minutes is the cinematic equivalent of a Wang Chung song. Curtis leaves no variety of love untouched: There's newlywed love, puppy love, sibling love, unrequited love, adulterous love, paternal love, even the heretofore unexamined love between an aging rock star (gleefully played by Bill Nighy) and his overweight manager. All it lacks is Courtney Love.

What it doesn't lack is a quality cast guaranteed to send my mother directly to the cineplex on opening day: Grant, Liam Neeson as a widower, Colin Firth as a cuckold, Alan Rickman as a would-be adulterer, Emma Thompson as a put-upon mom, Laura Linney as a put-upon sister and other young comers so beautiful they could have only come from a BBC series. Viewers of The Officewill be delighted to see Martin Freeman as an actor's stand-in; less blessedly, he performs most of his scenes whilst nude. Curtis has also stacked his movie with more inexplicable cameos than a Kevin Smith film--speaking of which, hello, Shannon Elizabeth.

If there's a star of this film, it's Grant, only because he's given the most powerful position: prime minister of England, a sort of hipper and more handsome Tony Blair without the pesky wife and kids. Really, he's just Hugh Grant--boyishly tousled, goofily tongue-tied around women he fancies, charmingly silly when he thinks no one else is looking. Curtis imagines a P.M. who dances around 10 Downing St. to the Pointer Sisters' "Jump (For My Love)," like Tom Cruise in Risky Business; it makes you wish Aaron Sorkin had thought of it first for Martin Sheen.

With Grant, Curtis reprises Bridget Jones's Diaryand remakes Notting Hill (and The American President, who actually shows up and looks a lot like Billy Bob Thornton). The P.M. falls for an assistant named Natalie (Brit recording star Martine McCutcheon), whose boyfriend has dumped her for having "thighs the size of big tree trunks." Of course, theirs is a relationship that will neverwork: He's the most powerful man in the U.K., while she's but mere working-class stock living with her family in a row house in a dodgy neighborhood. They'll never get together...or will they?

Curtis, a stickler for happy endings and middles and beginnings in which people who don't even like each other love each other, does nothing to damage his reputation as a maker of feel-grand films. Not even revelations of adultery spark arguments. In one scene, Firth's Jamie comes home early from a wedding to discover his brother (Dan Fredenburgh) is sleeping with his girlfriend; next time we see Jamie, he's alone in a countryside cottage, being introduced to the cleaning woman, Aurelia (Lucia Moniz), with whom he will, veddynaturally, fall in love next. No shouting, no slapping--nothing, just more calm and cool in a film as serene as a lake on a windless day.

No voices are raised unless it's to ask someone's hand in marriage or proclaim their love, and even then, it's often done in total silence. Mark (Andrew Lincoln), so generically handsome he looks like 10 other guys with network sitcoms, tells his best friend's wife, Juliet (Keira Knightly), that his "wasted heart will love you" using only giant poster board, à la Bob Dylan in his "Subterranean Homesick Blues" short film. She rushes out in the street to kiss him, suggesting hers is a transient love.

Karen (Emma Thompson), the put-upon wife of Alan Rickman's dully smarmy Harry and sister to Grant's P.M., exhibits only slightly more emotion when she discovers her husband has given a gold necklace to his sultry secretary, Mia (Heinke Makatsch). She goes into her room, puts on some Joni Mitchell, cries a bit, then brushes back tears and bangs to take the family off to a Christmas Eve pageant, where the entire cast, more or less, gathers for one of two happy endings. Curtis, now freed of other filmmakers mucking up his work, has given us the director's cut: one should-be-the-end, another alternate version that wraps things up at Heathrow Airport with a holiday bow. Did I mention this will make a fortune? My mother alone will see it three times.

 
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