This 'Love' connection misses


Love Actually oozes its sappy message from the opening voice-over narration: "General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed -- but I don't see that -- seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it's not particularly dignified or newsworthy -- but it's always there -- fathers & sons, mothers & daughters, husbands & wives, friends & strangers. If you look for it, I've got a sneaking suspicion that love is actually all around."

Coming from first-time writer-director Richard Curtis, this is inexcusably coy: If anyone should know that the mass audience has been lapping love stuff up it should be the guy who provided the scripts for Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones's Diary and Notting Hill.

Of course, he's trying to suit the popular mood post-9/11. Still, it's balderdash. Any honest watcher of the Anglo-American world would recognize that war and tragedy have engendered not only anger and anguish but public displays of love at rituals and memorials, as well as at debates where every side professes more love for humanity than the other sides. And you can't turn on the television without seeing a love parade on sitcoms, reality shows and even morning news-variety programs determined to make over and marry off anyone.

All Curtis does by beginning this way is soften up filmgoers to accept his gooey candy-sampler of a movie, with flavors ranging from sickly-sweet to bittersweet. The ads promise the ultimate romantic comedy, and Love Actually proves to be high-caloric moviemaking, all punch lines and climaxes. Watching it is like gorging on icing.

Curtis runs a score of attractive, well-turned-out Londoners through amorous paces in the five weeks leading up to Christmas. It's designed as a huge ensemble piece, but it's more like a cheat-filled marathon where the characters keep cutting in and out of the race.

Hugh Grant plays the current bachelor prime minister, who wins popular support by distancing himself from an American president (Billy Bob Thornton) with the politics of Bush and the sexual appetite of Clinton. That should give you some idea of the film's ultra-correct social-political tone; for a filmmaker as aesthetically corrupt as Curtis is here to mock the supposed political corruption of Tony Blair, Bush and Clinton are one lousy joke.

The prime minister takes his stand partly because he's seen the Yank make a pass at 10 Downing St. staffer Martine McCutcheon. Emma Thompson plays the prime minister's sister, a fulltime mother and homemaker who fears that her husband (Alan Rickman) has a wandering eye for a minx in his office.

Liam Neeson plays a recently widowed stepfather who learns that his stepson is really suffering from his first schoolboy crush. And then there's Colin Firth as a betrayed lover who finds hope with a non-English-speaking Portuguese housekeeper in the South of France, and Laura Linney as a junior office manager in Rickman's company who can't get started with an attractive co-worker because of a family secret.

Also, a couple of stand-ins for the stars of a porno movie find love as they mime various sex acts. A sandwich vendor goes trans-Atlantic to seek easy American bombshells. And flavor-of-the-millennium Keira Knightley fears that her husband's best friend hates her.

The scene-stealer is Bill Nighy as an over-the-hill rocker vamping up an old hit, Love is All Around, to be a holiday perennial, Christmas Is All Around. He gets to be lewd and rude and cynical while everyone else is giggling or making goo-goo eyes or smiling through tears.

What exactly is Curtis' gift as a writer? Basically, to stretch the content and wit of a one-liner into amiable banter that can fill out entire scenes. His characters don't merely "meet cute," they also interact cute and break up cute. It takes a page of dialogue for Grant to ascertain that McCutcheon has split up with a boyfriend who thought she was too chunky; the crowd-pleasing strokes come when Grant says, "I could just have him killed" and McCutcheon says, "Thank you, sir, I'll think about it." At best, this tissue of words soaks up wet sentiment like a super-absorbent paper towel, and is equally disposable.

If that were all, Love Actually might be tolerable. But given his plethora of characters, Curtis resorts to thudding theatrics to resolve his multiple plot lines. Can filmmakers put a moratorium on marriage proposals pulled off in restaurants before crowds of cheering drinkers and diners, or on grade-school Christmas pageants where half the cast conveniently comes together?

Curtis may think that by including a couple of broken or unresolved relationships, he's giving audiences an honest spectrum. He's actually only adding a few minor-key grace notes to an onslaught of happy endings. If you feel yourself glowing after Love Actually, you might be suffering from sugar shock.

Love Actually

Starring Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Martine McCutcheon, Colin Firth, Bill Nighy and Rowan Atkinson

Directed by Richard Curtis

Rated PG-13

Released by Universal

Time 135 minutes

Sun Score **

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