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Love Actually. The idiots guide to festive romance.

Jun 17, 2004 (Updated Jun 18, 2004)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Lots of potential, some comic moments. Rickman, Thompson and Nighy give worthy performances.

Cons:Over complicated structure, over saturated plots, overused clichés produce an under whelming result.

The Bottom Line: I certainly wouldn't like to stake my critical credentials on this ill-fated, 9-wheeled, festive love-wagon. See it if you must, enjoy it if you can. Baah Humbug!


Richard Curtis has a uncanny knack for scripting a side-splitting comic faux-par from twenty paces, or turning an everyday, average doorstep or restaurant into an unlikely setting for spine-tingling proclamations of undying, repressed love. His previous scripts from Four Weddings to Notting Hill and the brilliant adaptation of Bridget Jones Diary brimmed with hopelessly romantic, emotionally inept but extremely likeable characters delivering delectable lines as they fumble and bluff their way through the social mazes of their well paid jobs in their natural South London habitats. ‘Love Actually’ promised all this - and more. What with Curtis behind the camera as well as the script, a soundtrack of equal parts festive cheesiness and emotive sentiment and an ensemble cast so diverse and gifted that had a bomb hit the set during filming the entire British film industry would have ground to an immediate halt, at least until after Christmas.

From the opening credits we’re given the theme of the film as Curtis sets the mood with a series of airport greetings between random families, friends and lovers, and Hugh Grant’s voiceover tells us that, despite everything else going on in the world (wars, disaster, death and such), love is, actually, all around us. And he’s right, it’s literally everywhere we look, from weddings to funerals to school plays and orgies, even penetrating the fortified door of Number 10 Downing Street, you just can’t seem to move for couples (and the odd threesome) trying to make-up, break-up or make-out in time for Christmas dinner. The random, patchwork nature of these interactions reflects the film’s structure as we are introduced to a dizzying barrage of characters and storylines, all interwoven with the central theme of love and linked somewhat tenuously together in the final scene.

These nine or so stories range from the sublime to the ridiculous and pretty much everything in between as we are confronted with just about every possible permutation of love and one-liners that could be squeezed into 2 hours. You can almost imagine Curtis sitting in front of a blank script and penning down a few key words around which he intends to build his film, all of course, stemming from that crucial four letter word; ‘Lost love’ ‘Puppy love’ ‘Unrequited love’ ‘Plutonic love’ ‘Romantic love’ ‘Sex-crazed love’ ‘Barrier-Crossing love’ (which includes the sub-categorized divides of ‘class’ and ‘language’) scattered amidst the generic themes of ‘betrayal’ ‘loyalty’ ‘family’ and so on. And for each of these descriptions Curtis finds a character and writes a story, with apparent disregard for outdated concepts such as plausibility and development. And so we find Liam Neeson fulfilling the ‘lost love’ story, supposedly grieving for his dead wife as he coaches his (disturbingly articulate and emotionally vacuous) step son through his first preadolescent crush, which brims with ‘Puppy love’ potential. Hugh Grant and Martine McCutcheon adequately play the subdued, and somewhat implausible, lovers transcending class boundary as the affable new Prime Minister falls (rather hastily) for his common yet charming secretary. And Collin Firth pays the jilted lover who’s attempt to become a reclusive, misanthropic writer are thwarted by a bright eyed Portuguese cleaner, with their faltering, cross-wired communication providing much oportunity for comic cliches.

So, all the ingredients seem to be there, but oddly something about it just doesn’t add up quite as we’d expect. Somehow Curtis managed to portray all these aspects in Four Weddings quite naturally without ever seeming contrived, forced or manufactured. It seems that after applying the same formula once again this film suffers heavily from the law of diminishing returns, the audience expects more, and receive less, despite an overabundance of characters.

There are some other excursions including an over-extended visual gag in the form of two porn-star body doubles bashfully falling for each other in polite conversation whilst simulating intercourse in front of a camera, and the secretly obsessed best man who’s fallen for his best mates bride in a relationship which verges on creepy, rather than cute. But it’s Alan Rickman as a middle aged married boss facing the blatant advances of his attractive secretary and more notably Emma Thompson as his wronged wife who carry the only real emotional presence of the film in a story which deserved far more time and resolution than it was given.

Fortunately comic salvation lies in the inspired hands of Bill Nighy as the aging rocker promoting his comeback single (a gloriously irreverent take on ‘Love is all around’) who plays an extremely entertaining, if highly contrived, cross between Iggy Pop, Rod Stewart and Peter Stringfellow.

Now that he’s finally in the coveted directors chair, Curtis, like a kid who’s been let loose on the pick ‘n mix section, seems suddenly overwhelmed with choice, unable to exercise that all important gift of critical selection. Instead he decides to feed us everything he can find, in the hope that there will be something for everyone. And there is, but as a result it seems as though we’re left with a bit too much to digest, as we’re constantly batted back and forth between stories who’s relevance and interest is often questionable at best. Many of the characters are thrust before us then wrenched away before we’re ever really given the chance to engage with them, and so it becomes easy to resent the screen time given to certain stories, as they deny the more interesting stories precious time to develop.

What appear to be the best bits of several unmade films sit awkwardly next to each other, lacking the ordinary yet essential background development required to ground the characters. Devoid of any real substance this is a Tapas of romance, humour and festive sentimentality, so don’t expect a satisfying meal for your money. It is a well edited collection of sub-plots, many of which are tantalizing trailers for what promise to be interesting stories, but are never given the chance to deliver. As such the film often feels more like a 2 hour trailer for a 12 hour film, and would have worked extremely well if you were able to pick your favorite storylines half way through and follow those characters for the second half of the film. Films such as ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘Go’ show that it’s not impossible to interweave apparently unconnected stories into a clever, coherent whole with a little inspired imagination and creative thinking. But Curtis seemingly dismisses any need for particular inventiveness in the resolution of the film as he attempts to interconnect the nine or so random threads and numerous characters with a quite blasé, ‘six degrees of separation’ approach, linking characters by friendship and family in a crude ‘cut-and-paste’ afterthought.

Why is it that any criticism leveled at an overtly sentimental film is labeled ‘cynicism’ and promptly dismissed? Curtis is the self-proclaimed guru of the lovable Londoners Rom-com, and is now being judged by the standards he set nearly a decade ago. As a director he seems to be suffering from ‘editors-block’, that is, the inability to remove parts of the original script, even though their inclusion may be detrimental to the film as a whole, detracting from more credible storylines and more engaging characters. What this film appears to be lacking is a the guidance of a wise old friend who could have read over the script and said encouragingly, "This is a great storyline, but save it for another film" or less encouragingly (but perhaps most usefully) "Where the hell does this fit in? Keep it simple!"

As it is this film lacks the cohesion and simplicity which endeared so many hearts to ‘Four Weddings’, and fails to live up to the high expectations set by it’s own publicity. But there’s no denying that Curtis still knows how to press the right buttons and deposit something mysteriously ‘feelgood’ in his audience, which despite being short lived and shallow, makes it hard not to smile as the credits roll out this festive popcorn romance.


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