While many films extolling the virtues of love are too gooey to be palatable by most humans, “Love Actually” wields its sweetness gracefully, drawing us in with sincerity and humor before ladling on the syrup.
Its conceit is one that is difficult to argue with, no matter how bad a mood you’re in: that despite what you hear about the world being a bad place, love actually is all around us. The opening moments show footage of people greeting loved ones at Heathrow Airport. Our narrator tells us that these reunions — sloppy, unrehearsed and genuine — are proof that love, and not greed, money or selfishness, is what motivates most people.
That narrator, it turns out, is David (Hugh Grant), England’s new prime minister and an eligible bachelor. His story, concerning his fast-developing feelings for a member of his staff, the compulsive-swearer Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), is one of several separate but intertwined stories told in the film. Each of them addresses some aspect of love, and the film celebrates love in all its beauty, joy, heartbreak and agony.
Daniel (Liam Neeson) is a recent widower who is certain he will never love anyone as much as he loved Joanna, and has only his platonic friend Karen (Emma Thompson) to talk to. His young son, Sam (Thomas Sangster), has a schoolboy crush on a classmate. Jamie (Colin Firth), a writer, is living in a cabin in France for a few weeks, slowly and impossibly falling in love with his Portuguese maid Aurelia (Lucia Moniz) despite the language barrier. Sarah (Laura Linney), who works at a magazine, has been in love with co-worker Carl (Rodrigo Santoro) for two years but can’t muster the courage to tell him. Mark (Andrew Lincoln) is best man at his friend Peter’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wedding to Juliet (Keira Knightley), then is hopelessly depressed over having lost his friend. Middle-aged Harry (Alan Rickman) enjoys a comfortably frumpy relationship with his wife, and is surprised to find himself the object of a youthful employee’s affections.
Part of the film’s charm is the way it slowly reveals all of these characters’ relationships to each other, surprising us with the revelation, for example, that so-and-so is so-and-so’s husband when all along we thought their subplots were completely separate from one another.
That sort of playfulness in the storytelling is typical of writer/director Richard Curtis, whose previous screenplays include “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” “Notting Hill” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” all of whose influence can be felt in “Love Actually,” his directorial debut. He expertly bounces from one story to the next, keeping nearly all of the plates spinning at just the right speed so that only a few get neglected.
(In truth, there are two subplots that ought to have been cut altogether. One with Martin Freeman and Joanna Page as stand-ins on a movie set has some amusing sight gags but doesn’t amount to anything. Another, about a libidinous lad (Kris Marshall) who sets off for America to find some action, is so absurd it belongs in an “American Pie” movie, not here.)
By necessity, to avoid having an eight-hour film, each of the stories is distilled down to its basic elements. We get only the good stuff, and none of the padding normally associated with romantic comedies. The performances are droll, every one of them, the dialogue wry and witty, and the emotional moments by turns poignant, wrenching and jubilant.
There’s the simple and amusing relationship between Jamie and Aurelia, constantly misunderstanding each other without realizing it and falling in love all the while. There’s Mark’s realization that sometimes love is brutal. There’s young Sam’s calculated but innocent attempts to woo his sweetheart through the power of music. There’s an aging rock star (Bill Nighy) and his eventual discovery that love isn’t necessarily a romance-and-sex thing.
There is also the great pleasure in seeing so many terrific actors doing their thing. Emma Thompson: What a delight you are! Why can’t you be in three movies a year, like so many of your less-talented colleagues? Hugh Grant, doing that adorable stammer thing that so many folks like. Colin Firth, appearing in his one-millionth film of this nature but still giving a vulnerable, honest performance as if it were his first. Alan Rickman, always so likably gruff, and Laura Linney, down-to-earth and accessible, and Rowan Atkinson being sublimely silly in two brief appearances, and Billy Bob Thornton playing the American president so well that I think I would vote for him if he ran.
In the end, it requires almost superhuman suspension of disbelief to get so many disparate characters together in two locations, first a school Christmas program, then an airport. But, if this is meant to be eight or nine romantic comedies rolled into one, all existing in the same universe, then it stands to reason that the airport would be a busy place, since that’s where the concluding scenes always seem to take place.
Besides, the whole thing is about love, and what is love if not improbable? What about it makes sense or follows the rules of logic? Love, like a good movie, can convince you of almost anything.
B+ (2 hrs., 13 min.; )