Love Actually (review)

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Fool for Love

You know me. You know I hate romantic comedies, mostly. You know I think they tend to be phony, they tend to show off the worst sides of both men and women, and they tend to be neither romantic nor comedic. So you gotta be suspecting that a film billed as “the ultimate romantic comedy” would have me running screaming in opposite direction as if my life depending upon escape.

So you gotta know that when I tell you not to miss Love Actually, and to bring all your friends, and to tell all the friends you can’t take to go on their own, it’s gotta be something really special. And it is, it really, really is. This is a perfectly wonderful, perfectly foolish movie, in that fool-for-love kind of way. It’s a movie that makes you wish you could run out and fall in love, like it was something you could order out for and have delivered.

And the experience of this film was, for me, like that lightning bolt of falling in love at first sight. True, I went into the film hoping for good things, with this cast, an Anglophile’s dream — Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Alan Rickman, Rowan Atkinson, Liam Neeson, and more — and the fact that it was written and directed (his debut behind the camera) by Richard Curtis, who wrote The Tall Guy, one of my favorite films that no one else has seen, and created (with Atkinson) Blackadder, which warps my brain so delightfully. (Curtis also wrote Bridget Jones’s Diary and Notting Hill, but I don’t hold that against him.) But I wasn’t expecting to instantly go head-over-heels. From practically the moment the lights go down and the screen lights up, I succumbed to sobby, sniffling tears that I’m still not even sure why I was crying. Except that this is a film so full of tenderness and longing, of sacrifice and devotion, from the very first moment, that it’s overwhelming, and enchantingly so, and the only possible emotional reaction is to have a good, satisfying cry that lasts its entire running time.

The really terrific thing is that Love Actually, while it certainly lives up to its “ultimate romantic comedy” label, is a celebration of all kinds of love — between siblings, between parents and children, among lifelong friends of all stripes… and between lovers and would-be lovers, of course, too. There’s Neeson’s (Gangs of New York, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) Daniel, who’s just lost his wife, and his now-orphaned 11-year-old stepson, Sam (Thomas Sangster), whose moodiness, Daniel discovers to his great surprise, is not down to his mother’s death but to “the total agony of being in love” with a girl at school who doesn’t know he exists. There’s the new bachelor prime minister (Hugh Grant: Two Weeks Notice, About a Boy), who falls instantly for a Downing Street secretary Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), while his sister, Karen (Thompson: Treasure Planet, Primary Colors), worries about losing her husband, Harry (Rickman: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Galaxy Quest), to a pretty, and pretty aggressive, coworker, Mia (Heike Makatsch: Resident Evil, Longitude), while also trying to fix up two other officemates, Sarah (Laura Linney: Mystic River, The Life of David Gale) and Karl (Rodrigo Santoro: Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle). And that’s only the half of it. And the course of no one’s true love runs smooth.

Oh, and this is all happening in the weeks leading up to Christmas, with its big love-in of a climax coming on Christmas Eve. (Heh, I said “climax” and “coming” — but this ain’t all just about pure, idealistic love; sex and lust play a big part, too.) It’s all saved from sappy schmaltz by its typically British, typically Curtis sense of humor, one that punctures all hints of mawkishness the moment it threatens to intrude: the absurd Christmas pop song by has-been rock star Billy Mack (Bill Nighy: Underworld, I Capture the Castle, who, in a cast of scene-stealers, just about steals the movie) and the love he unexpectedly discovers; the supercilious department store clerk Rufus (Atkinson: Johnny English, Scooby-Doo), a bane to Christmas shoppers; the shy young couple (Martin Freeman and Joanna Page: From Hell, The Lost World) who meet while working as on a movie set as stand-ins for actors in a sex scene, a bewitching separation of the mere mechanics of sex from the magic of attraction.

Some will say Curtis has tried to pack too many stories into a single film, but every character is worth spending time with — they’re all people you wish you knew, real and flawed and thoroughly engaging, and I felt like I could have watched another two hours of them fumbling their way through the messy misery of falling in love or staying in love or loving all the other people in their lives that they’re not sleeping with (or hoping to sleep with). And the charming jostling of all these many enchanting people is the entire point of Curtis’s gloriously untidy film: “Love actually is all around.”

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