Thursday, December 18, 2014

Watch This: Love Actually

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Love Actually (2003)
Written and directed by Richard Curtis

If one were to list the film genres most frequently plagued by triteness and an overabundance of schmaltz, the romantic comedy and the Christmas movie would both certainly be near the top of that list.  Combining the two would seem like a surefire way to produce a stale, cloying, overly sentimental mess.  It may be somewhat surprising, then, that a film like Love Actually, a big-budget, sprawling ensemble romantic comedy with an all-star cast, essentially a rom-com/Christmas hybrid on steroids, should be such a delight to watch.

Much of the credit for this goes to screenwriter and first-time director Richard Curtis, whose career as the writer of the Black Adder and Mr. Bean television series, as well as the smash hit romantic comedy films Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999), and Bridget Jones's Diary (2001), have made him a leading figure in British comedy.  The script is smart and genuinely funny, and the game cast members ensure that the sentiment rarely feels forced.  Unlike more recent holiday-themed ensemble romantic comedies like Valentine's Day (2010) and New Year's Eve (2011), which feel like engineered, lab-created paycheck vehicles for their star-studded casts, Love Actually feels fresh, engaging, and sincere, even in its grandest, that-only-happens-in-the-movies romantic moments.

The film depicts the love lives of a number of Londoners in the weeks leading up to Christmas, as their respective paths cross in a series of loosely interconnected stories.  Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) is an aging rock star, hoping to make a comeback with a Christmas-themed cover of a classic love song.  He makes no effort to hide his disdain for the blatantly commercial song, much to the chagrin of his manager, Joe (Gregor Fisher).  John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page) both work as body doubles in the movies, but their conversational ease on set, even during setups for nude scenes, does not lead easily to an expression of their romantic feelings.  Mark (Andrew Lincoln, looking far younger and less grizzled than in his role as Rick Grimes on The Walking Dead) is secretly in love with his best friend's new bride, Juliet (Keira Knightley), masking his longing with feigned contempt.  Awkward catering employee Colin (Kris Marshall), fed up with rebuffs from English women, decides to try his luck in the United States, where he believes his accent will make him instantly desirable to American women.  Recently cuckolded writer Jamie (Colin Firth) has come to rural France to work on a new book, and promptly falls in love with his Portuguese housekeeper, Aurelia (Lucia Moniz).  Their mutual attraction grows despite their lack of a shared language (of course, that doesn't really matter because they speak the international language).  Daniel (Liam Neeson) is recently widowed, and struggles to connect with his stepson, Sam (Thomas Sangster, whose elfin adorableness is so acute, it may actually cause physical pain).  They manage to forge a bond as Daniel helps Sam to woo a popular girl from school.  Daniel's friend Karen (Emma Thompson) is married to Harry (Alan Rickman), who is being tempted toward infidelity by the advances of his administrative assistant, Mia (Heike Makatsch).  Harry's employee Sarah (Laura Linney) is in love with co-worker Karl (Rodrigo Santoro), but her attempts at romance are hampered by her constant cell phone conversations with a mystery caller, who turns out to be her mentally ill brother.  Last but not least, there is the newly elected Prime Minister (Hugh Grant), whose attraction to his slightly plump catering manager, Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), is hindered by a misunderstood incident involving the visiting U.S. president (Billy Bob Thornton).

Despite this myriad of intersecting stories (did I mention that the Prime Minister is Karen's brother?), the narrative moves effortlessly back and forth among the numerous plot lines.  The bevy of characters and stories also means that the film makes for a breezy viewing experience.  With a running time of well over two hours, the film is far longer than average, yet nothing in the story feels like filler, and there are even a couple of storylines that feel underdeveloped (the Mark-Juliet strand in particular seems resolved too briefly and neatly).  Richard Curtis, never one to shy away from somber plot points (after all, a funeral does figure prominently in his best-known film script), wisely introduces some more serious story elements that, in less talented hands, might undermine the film's overall cheerfulness.  Instead, the film manages a sober and affecting treatment of infidelity and mental illness that never derails the overall mood.

The film's expansive cast is a joy to watch.  Hugh Grant, reuniting with the writer that gave him his breakout role in Four Weddings and a Funeral, is charming as usual as the Prime Minister.  Emma Thompson also gives a terrific performance, particularly in the heartbreaking scene where she discovers her husband's possible infidelity.  The film's real standout, however, is Bill Nighy as middle-aged rocker Billy Mack, whose mischievous forthrightness provides some of the film's biggest laughs.

While the film's opening and closing voiceover sequences feel a tad heavy-handed, the sincerity of the filmmakers, Richard Curtis in particular, shines through, making this a perfect romantic holiday film to watch cuddled up next to the one you love.

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