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Dustin Putman

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Love Actually (2003)
2 Stars

Directed by Richard Curtis
Cast: Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Bill Nighy, Laura Linney, Thomas Sangster, Martine McCutcheon, Lucia Moniz, Keira Knightley, Andrew Lincoln, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Heike Makatsch, Martin Freeman, Joanna Page, Gregor Fisher, Rodrigo Santoro, Elizabeth Margoni, Kris Marshall, Declan Donnelly, Billy Bob Thornton, Rowan Atkinson, Olivia Olson, Claudia Schiffer, Elisha Cuthbert, January Jones, Ivana Milicevic, Lulu Popplewell, Denise Richards, Shannon Elizabeth, Sienna Guillory, Frank Moorey, Jill Freud
2003 – 129 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for sex, nudity, and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 8, 2003.

Watching "Love Actually," one could easily imagine it being directed by Robert Altman if he offered cutesy characterizations and plot developments and tidy, upbeat conclusions. The film has a sprawling cast of over twenty lead roles, their lives loosely and not so loosely interwoven, and, indeed, even opens with a recording session just as Altman's 1975 masterpiece "Nashville" did. Plagiarism or homage? Either way, this connection was surely not incidental. In fact, replace country music and politics with love as its focal subject matter and, voila, "Love Actually" is born.

Keeping a scorecard of all of the characters and their relations with one another would not be a bad idea, although as written and directed by Richard Curtis (2002's "About a Boy") it isn't nearly as confusing as it's about to seem. Recent widower Daniel (Liam Neeson) is worried how his 11-year-old son, Sam (Thomas Sangster), is coping with the death of his mother, while Sam is just as preoccupied with the love he feels for popular classmate Joanne (Olivia Olson). Daniel's sister, Karen (Emma Thompson), believes she is happily married to Harry (Alan Rickman) until she secretly discovers he is contemplating an affair with his young assistant, Mia (Heike Makatsch). Daniel and Karen's other brother is the new British Prime Minister (Hugh Grant), who becomes distracted when he falls head over heels for his tea lady, Natalie (Martine McCutcheon). Working with Harry and Mia is Sarah (Laura Linney), who has pined for handsome coworker Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) for over two years, but has trouble getting close to anyone because of her dedication to her mentally challenged brother. Early on, Sarah attends the wedding of Juliet (Keira Knightley) and Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), whose best friend, Mark (Andrew Lincoln), harbors a painful secret crush on Juliet. Upon discovering his girlfriend is cheating on him, Juliet, Peter, and Mark's friend, Jamie (Colin Firth), falls in love with his Portuguese maid, Aurelia (Lucia Moniz), despite their language barrier. John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page) are porn actors who strike an undeniable connection during work on their latest film. Meanwhile, once-famous musician Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) is trying with all of his might to claim a comeback with his latest song, a Christmas-themed cover version of "Love is All Around." All of these stories—and more, believe it or not—play out over the five-week period before Christmas.

"Love Actually" is so sweet, so cheerful, and so eager-to-please in its singular goal to be "the ultimate romantic comedy" that it almost seems wrong to say anything negative about it. Nonetheless, I will. As this 129-minute epic plays out, as a viewer you are in the moment and enjoying yourself. No scene runs longer than a minute or two, and the storylines and characters so quickly change that there is no time to grow tired of a particular segment. However, in juggling so many different characters, no one is developed beyond surface-level. You may grow to like most of the people you meet, but there are only a select few worthy of staking a claim on how things will turn out. The climax, as full of heart and good will as it is, threatens to put the viewer into sugar shock.

The best segments undoubtedly belong to Colin Firth (2003's "What a Girl Wants") and Lucia Moniz, who simmer with chemistry and charm as they form a tight bond without knowing each other's language; Emma Thompson (1998's "Primary Colors"), whose reaction to her husband's affair rings with truth and clarity; Liam Neeson (2002's "K-19: The Widowmaker") and Thomas Sangston, whose winning, brutally honest father and son relationship garners laughs; and Hugh Grant (2002's "Two Weeks Notice") and delightful newcomer Martine McCutcheon, whose against-all-odds romance comes to a satisfying head at the conclusion.

The most genuinely romantic scene belongs to Andrew Lincoln and the stunning Keira Knightley (2003's "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl"), as he silently professes his undying love for her on her doorstep through simply written notecards. Less successful is one character's trek to Wisconsin in search for American girls, whom he finds in the form of Elisha Cuthbert (2003's "Old School"), January Jones (2003's "American Wedding"), Ivana Milicevic (2003's "Down with Love"), Denise Richards (2003's "Scary Movie 3"), and Shannon Elizabeth (2001's "Thirteen Ghosts"). So far-fetched and over-the-top are these scenes that you keep expecting it to turn out to be a dream (it isn't).

As a Christmas love story, "Love Actually" is, indeed, romantic and jubilant enough to become a holiday mainstay for adults. The film's London setting is beautifully photographed by Michael Coulter (1999's "Notting Hill") and it plays like a greatest hits of classic Christmas tunes. Director Richard Curtis is dead set on not wasting a minute of screen time, plowing forward with the abandon of Christmas carolers and believing that viewers will not have a moment to even consider how fluffy and inconsequential the whole thing really is. "Love Actually" succeeds at this, remaining pleasant and entertaining from beginning to end. Only once it is over do you unfortunately witness its staying power evaporate before your very eyes.
© 2003 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman