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'Love Actually': Romance Submerged in Sugar

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 7, 2003

"Love Actually" could have been ordered straight off a takeout menu of British romantic comedies. Take something from Column A ("About a Boy"), take something from Column B ("Bridget Jones's Diary") and as for the rest, forget the alphabet and take as much as you can from "Four Weddings and a Funeral." Slather with heaps of cloyingly sweet froth, and serve.

That's what writer-director Richard Curtis has done in "Love Actually," a busy, overstuffed and achingly saccharine ensemble vehicle that features, as it happens, one wedding and a funeral. At least Curtis is stealing from himself: He wrote the screenplays for "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "Four Weddings," as well as "Notting Hill," the Cinderfella romance starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. The connective element in all of these, of course, is Grant, whose stammering, self-deprecating, devastatingly handsome presence made all of them hits of varying degrees.

Curtis, making his directorial debut here, doesn't lean on the association. He has cast Grant alongside a dozen other actors in just one of countless story lines that jumble together to form a nonsensical, if warmhearted, roundelay. So we have Grant playing a young, single British prime minister who yearns for his sweet, unassuming secretary (Martine McCutcheon); Emma Thompson playing the PM's sister, who is married to a straying nonprofit manager (Alan Rickman); Liam Neeson playing a man who has just lost his wife and is trying to forge a relationship with his stepson, and who has a relationship to Thompson's character that is never entirely clear; Laura Linney playing a character who works at the aforementioned nonprofit and who yearns for its sweet, unassuming graphic designer; and Colin Firth playing a cuckolded novelist who decamps for the South of France and yearns for a Portuguese maid.

And that's just for starters. Have we mentioned the new bride (Keira Knightley) and her husband's lovesick best man? Or the two stand-ins on the set of a pornographic movie? Or the unappealing cater-waiter who finds passion and romance in Milwaukee in the dead of winter? Or the aging rock star played by Bill Nighy? Or the clerk played by Rowan Atkinson? Would you believe Billy Bob Thornton as the president? Denise Richards for a cameo, anyone? Claudia Schiffer to block?

If listing the cast of "Love Actually" is exhausting, it's even more tiring to watch it, chiefly because Curtis makes such long-winded and strenuous labor of making such simple, unassailable points. (He may be the only director earnest, or self-important, enough to invoke Sept. 11, 2001, in a romantic comedy.) His premise -- stated during an admittedly touching opening documentary sequence filmed at the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport -- is that "love, actually, is all around us." True enough, but Curtis can't leave well enough alone, throwing plot line on top of character on top of cliche on top of manipulation to create a movie whose desperation to be liked can have only one effect: to make it thoroughly unlikable.

Although Curtis has rounded up a redoubtable cast, he misuses them in a series of too-cute gags and set pieces. So we have Grant at 10 Downing St., doing the Tom Cruise dance bit from "Risky Business"; a wedding where the choir not only sings "All You Need Is Love" but wherein an entire orchestra pops up out of the audience and the priest high-fives the best man; a school Christmas play featuring moppets in octopus and lobster costumes and a 10-year-old's sexy solo worthy of Britney Spears; a mad dash through an airport for a first kiss; and a mad dash through France for a marriage proposal.

A few recognizably human feelings manage to peek through sentimentalism that seems to have been applied with a trowel: Thompson plays the harried, middle-aged wife with dignity and pathos, and Rickman and Neeson wring as much self-respect as they can from roles that are far from fully realized. Linney, too, is far underserved by a script trying too hard to shoehorn in every "aw, shucks" moment from the romantic comedy canon. By the time "Love Actually" winds up back at Heathrow and Curtis reprises his conceit of showing real-life footage of arrivals, what started out as a genuinely emotional moment feels like one cherry too many on a sagging confection.

Love Actually (135 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for sexuality, nudity and language.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company