Richard Curtis–I think–said he wrote Love Actually from all his unused ideas. Just threw them into the oven and baked them together. To some degree, it shows. Unlike the usual big cast films, with lots of incidental meetings and relationships (as P.T. Anderson wrote, these things “happen all the time”), Love Actually is very loose. The characters are connected by thin contrivances and a school play. Curtis is very visibly not working with themes here or making any insightful observations into the human condition.
Amusingly, though its thesis is… well, love is all around and people in love are filled with superhuman perseverance and fortitude, Love Actually… actually disproves its own thesis. In a couple ways. The most visible is the breaking marriage between Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson. Rickman’s got a wandering eye and, strangely, Curtis never tells the viewer how wrong he goes… which means it’s impossible to know where he or Thompson are at the end of the film. It’s intentional and cheap and, if either character were particularly effective–except the Thompson composing herself to Joni Mitchell scene–it would hurt the film. The second is more discreet. An utterly wasted Laura Linney is caring for her mentally ill brother. And how does she end up? How does Mr. Right respond to this news? By being a twerp. Curtis seems to have noticed too, because he just abandons Linney at the end.
Of all the stories–there are, I guess, eight–the most effective (as in, worthy of feature length treatment… something other big cast, lots of story line films never suggest) are Hugh Grant and Martine McCutcheon and Colin Firth and Lúcia Moniz.
The Grant and McCutcheon story is awesome–Grant’s the new prime minister, she serves him tea. It’s got Hugh Grant dancing to the Pointer Sisters, it’s McCutcheon’s wonderful delivery of unintentional curses; it’s touching and their chemistry is wonderful. Throw in some more political turmoil and it’s a feature.
Firth and Moniz–he’s a lovelorn thriller novelist and she’s his maid (he’s in France writing, which looks incredibly civilized)–have a bit more comedic story going. Neither speaks the other’s language and, while the humor’s cheap, it’s very funny. Firth’s perfect in the role. So, figure he has a funny editor waiting for the novel and a family who would like a Portuguese daughter-in-law. Another feature.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, it’s hard to tell how it’d be much different), Curtis cheaps out big time on the Liam Neeson bonding with his stepson following the mother’s death. It’s the best work Neeson has done in years, but the story quickly becomes about the kid impressing a girl at school and Curtis gives Neeson the biggest copout ending in the world.
I suppose Bill Nighy, in a crazy, hilarious performance as an old rock star deserves his own paragraph but he’s not going to get one. The Nighy story is great, giving the film some much needed texture (the other characters watching Nighy on TV, for instance, ring a lot truer than the convenient school musical). There’s a lot more stuff, both funny and not so much (Curtis frequently confuses sincerely touching and melodramatic).
It’s a solid film, lots of problems, lots of good things, but it’s very unambitious. I’m left wanting more Firth and Moniz, more Grant and McCutcheon and… a) unlike Curtis’s other romantic comedies, it’s a weeding to see either again and b) I really shouldn’t be wanting them. It’s just another sign the film is not a successful ensemble picture, it’s just a bunch of disparate elements, good and not so good, strung awkwardly together.
Written and directed by Richard Curtis; director of photography, Michael Coulter; edited by Nick Moore; music by Craig Armstrong; production designer, Jim Clay; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Duncan Kenworthy; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Alan Rickman (Harry), Bill Nighy (Billy Mack), Colin Firth (Jamie), Emma Thompson (Karen), Hugh Grant (The Prime Minister), Laura Linney (Sarah), Liam Neeson (Daniel), Martine McCutcheon (Natalie), Heike Makatsh (Mia), Rowan Atkinson (Rufus), Lúcia Moniz (Aurelia), Martin Freeman (John), Joanna Page (Just Judy), Andrew Lincoln (Mark), Keira Knightley (Juliet) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Peter).