How much hokum can one movie contain? “Love Actually” tests the limits, and quickly exceeds them. And that’s just in the opening 10 minutes. The picture proudly wears its heart on its sleeve, then points to it when it thinks you aren’t looking.
Still, there are some hilarious touches in this British comedy, especially for fans of Hugh Grant, who plays a prime minister who’s much less accommodating to American interests than Tony Blair, and Colin Firth, in the role of a pixilated novelist who falls for his Portuguese maid. Her dialogue is translated in subtitles that recall the fractured translations that tell us what the characters really think in “Annie Hall.”
Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman are less fortunate, stuck in the overly familiar roles of a suspicious wife and a flirtatious husband. They do their best, as do Liam Neeson, as a widower with a scarily precocious child, and Laura Linney, as an office worker who is so glued to her cell phone that she wrecks her big chance at romance. But none has enough screen time to achieve much resonance.
The movie’s theme, stated quite boldly in the opening scenes, is that love is everywhere, if we’ll only grab it. The way the stories are set up, it’s hardly giving anything away to say that there are happy endings for widowers, lovesick children, tempted husbands, stiff-upper-lip wives, lonely politicians, lonelier writers, sex-driven young men and even certain kinds of cell-phone addicts.
Almost no one winds up a loser here. The script, which takes full advantage of the built-in sentimental value of its Christmas setting in London, is shameless in its willingness to tie up nearly every loose end and provide safe landings for romantics.
Less treacle, more laughs At least the writer-director, Richard Curtis, allows for a number of less treacly touches: Rowan Atkinson’s brief, telling cameo as a salesman with a fetish for gift-wrapping; Andrew Lincoln’s deliberately unbalanced portrayal of a loner who is obsessively devoted to his best friend’s new wife; and Billy Bob Thornton’s unexpected appearance as the U.S. President.
This philandering bully combines the most cringe-worthy elements of Clinton and Bush, and he does not succeed in getting the Brits to side with him. The episode plays like a case of political wish-fulfillment on the filmmakers’ part, though it’s no more ridiculous than any of the script’s other fantasy elements.
Curtis, who also wrote “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Notting Hill,” throws in a running gag about the Troggs’ “Love Is All Around,” which served as the theme song in “Four Weddings.” Here it’s royally trashed by an aging rock star (Bill Nighy) who hates himself for transforming it into a commercialized Christmas song, with such lyrics as “let it show” changed to “let it snow.”
Nighy runs away with the part and the song, turning the character into a demonstration that nothing succeeds like wretched excess. The more he complains about the fact that he’s selling out, the more obscenities he hurls at disc jockeys and fans, the more attention he attracts. When he threatens to perform the song nude on television on Christmas Eve, the script cannily turns the moment into a sideshow, and yet another romantic opportunity for another character.
John Hartl is the movie critic for MSNBC.com