'Love Actually' Is a Many, Many, Many Splendored Thing

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 7, 2003

"LOVE ACTUALLY" is less in love with love -- although, with nine separate subplots about heterosexual coupling, it is certainly that -- than it is in love with itself and its own cleverness.

Mind you, there's lots to like, if not love, in this London-set, star-studded comedy. Unfortunately, there's a little bit to hate, too. But first the good news.

Written and directed by Richard Curtis (writer of "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Notting Hill" and "Bridget Jones's Diary"), the script is a mostly witty, audience-charming froth with a healthy, if not always fully fleshed-out, balance between the sweet and the bitter. I suppose it's evidence of my slightly perverse taste (as well as Curtis's), but my favorite plot lines in what is essentially a comic romp about the ubiquity of love are those flavored not with the sap of happy-ever-afterdom, such as the central, upstairs/downstairs romance between the prime minister (Hugh Grant) and working-class staff member Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), but with the complex bouquet of thwarted intentions.

One story, involving the disintegration of trust between a woman (Emma Thompson) and her almost-philandering husband (Alan Rickman), and another, involving a neurotic American (Laura Linney) whose infatuation with a gorgeous co-worker (Rodrigo Santoro) is paralyzed by a martyr complex focused on her mentally ill brother, are among the most interesting, and the most achingly real.

What a shame, then, that there's not much room in this crowded film for these stories to be developed in much more than cursory fashion. Particularly not when valuable celluloid real estate is wasted on such story lines as the one about a boorish and horny Brit (Kris Marshall) who convinces himself that his English accent will act as a natural aphrodisiac on this side of the pond, leading to an exercise in stateside bad taste straight out of MTV Productions. Curtis, who reportedly has set aside enough unused ideas in the making of this film to make a second one, should have considered letting this episode fall to the cutting room floor, too.

It's not a fatal miscalculation -- there's enough that's right about "Love" to compensate for what's wrong with it -- but such missteps detract from Curtis's otherwise admirable mastery of multiple, interwoven narratives.

Another quibble: Although there's an initial hint that there may be a gay/straight/straight love triangle involving a new bride (Keira Knightley), her husband (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and her husband's best friend (Andrew Lincoln) -- something that there seems to be more than enough room for in a movie purporting to be about love in all its many splendors -- Curtis ultimately opts for the more conventional, i.e., straight/straight/straight, formulation. That, along with the tittering we're meant to do when a washed-up rock star (Bill Nighy, in a scene-stealing performance) declares his love for his longtime, long-suffering manager (Gregor Fisher), leaves a faintly homophobic aftertaste.

But these and other flaws chafe only because so much of "Love Actually" actually works. In its blend of relationships sublime (as between the recently widowed Liam Neeson and his lovelorn young stepson, played by Thomas Sangster) and ridiculous (as between two porn-movie stand-ins, played to deadpan perfection by Joanna Page and Martin Freeman), it aims to put not just a smile on your face, but perhaps a tear in your eye as well.

Like love, "Love Actually" is far from perfect. But it's close enough to perfection to hurt, every once in a while, when it blows up in your face.

LOVE ACTUALLY (R, 135 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, sexual humor and partial nudity. Area theaters.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company