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Published: 11/7/2003

Movie review: Love Actually ****

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Pardon as I play the gender card for a moment. But Love Actually is The Matrix for women, as much of a make-believe fantasy of icons and disparate characters and plot lines, bumping into each other like crosstown traffic, anxious to be replayed in your head and organized into some larger meaning, then scraped up against the real world.

It s really pretty wonderful. Disguised as a sprawling, overstuffed star-studded British romantic comedy, it is not only the best romantic comedy in quite a long time, it is every romantic comedy in quite a long time, baked into a melange and made gargantuan. I left smiling like a huge imbecile.

But you need to be in the mood. For two blissed-out hours, it is every clich , every Louis Armstrong scat, every flustered soul, every public marriage proposal, every goose bump, every eye roll, every hug - everything good and bad we ve come to associate with romantic comedy, shamelessly assembled by writer-director Richard Curtis, stacked end to end, then twined together, until the result is towering, intricate, charming, and cheerfully indulgent.

You don t want to applaud when it s over so much as fly to London and pinch this talented Englishman on the cheek and ruffle his hair. If the idea of an epic romantic comedy sounds dreadful, well, forget it. Curtis proves himself the Hitchcock of modern romantic comedy.

By that, I mean a filmmaker completely in control of his genre; the problem is audiences, many critics (myself included), and, if the clich holds, most men have never especially appreciated romantic comedy. The form is seen as too predictable, too artificial, too soft; as if your average Hollywood action film were anything but. Curtis should know: Love Actually is his directing debut (he also wrote it), but he s responsible for scripting the best (and most British) romantic comedies of the past decade: Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones s Diary. Of course, Shakespeare got here first, followed by Jane Austen, then Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder - to name a few great practitioners of the comedy of manners.

Curtis is far from their league. But he has guts, and genuinely believes in love, and he knows how to write a sentimental scene with a smart, skeptical voice. (His characters always seem to be resisting the fact they ve been cast in a romantic comedy.) Plus he goes over the top when he feels like it; he can be insufferably sweet, then quick to temper it with a bit of good-natured raunchiness. One of Love Actually s million and one subplots involves movie stand-ins, offhandedly discussing London traffic while naked and simulating sex; after work, they re too shy to express their feelings about each other. That segues into a widower (Liam Neeson) helping his son through a bout of puppy love; then on to a randy player convinced Wisconsin is the promised land: “I am Colin, god of sex. I m just on the wrong continent.”

Think of Curtis as something of a happy slut, and Love Actually his sloppy Valentine to romantic comedy. We never get the sense he thinks he s slumming, and his enthusiasm is contagious. He embraces every instinct, good and bad - it s as if he can t stop, and he doesn t want to. Have we got Hugh Grant stammering? Check. Colin Firth effortlessly charming, in great sweaters? Check. A kid mooning over a classmate? Yup. Emma Thompson carrying the weight of unfaithful love? Got it. Do all these characters come together in a cohesive way?

Not really, but he s not making a film about community or society or even the bonds between strangers as much as emptying his thoughts on the lengths we go to for love. (Almost without fail, men are chasing women here; and heterosexual romance dominates. You wonder if he notices.) Rather than walk us through one romance, he sketches in a dozen, illustrating different types of love, then shovels it all into a mold vaguely resembling Nashville, Robert Altman s traffic jam of humanity. Again, Love Actually is far from that league. But it s shocking how close to the ballpark he gets. (Wild guess: Love Actually will age gracefully.)

Curtis begins at the arrivals area at Heathrow Airport, zeroing in tight on heartwarming clutches between real people; meanwhile, we hear Grant narrate: “General opinion is starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed. I don t see that. Seems to me love is everywhere.” I braced for the worst. As if we didn t get the point, the soundtrack cues the Troggs “Love is All Around” - and the inclusion is distressingly banal until the punch line hits. An aging rock star (Bill Nighy) cringes through the recording of a holiday cash-in: “Christmas is All Around.”

His search for a No. 1 single (and someone to love) is our first story - and the most tangential, though Nighy nearly steals the show with a sub-Keith Richards shtick, while his awful song acts as a clever thread, audible in the background of the other plots. The rest is constructed like a Royal Conservancy variation of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game:

The Prime Minister (Grant) moons over his tea lady, while his sister (Emma Thompson) worries her husband (Alan Rickman) is getting too close to his secretary; who works in the same office with an American (Laura Linney) who is too timid to approach her water cooler crush, and possibly never will because of her selfless devotion to her mentally ill brother.

Meanwhile, in France, a cuckold novelist (Colin Firth) falls for his Portuguese maid, but neither speaks the other s language. And that s just a few of the plates spinning here. Curtis flips back and forth every few minutes like a channel surfer, and yet manages to sneak in moments of grace for nearly 20 major characters. Thompson listening to Joni Mitchell after a heartbreak, attempting to summon her courage, is a highlight; but then there s improbable love to address, unrequited love, hidden love, and so on. Some work better than others; a couple could have been dropped without being missed.

Not everything turns out sunny; some plot lines dangle at the end; others just peter out. But I think it works better as a mess - in the best sense of the word. Hugh dances to the Pointer Sisters, and it s embarrassing and hilarious. There s that familiar awkward proposal scene with a huge family hovering nearby - but it s better written then nearly any other. Curtis spots the film with wry asides, and funny bits of business, then has the audacity to set it all in a sparkling London covered in white lights during the five weeks leading up to Christmas. Indeed, happy holidays start here, actually.



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