Richard Curtis, the writer and director of Love Actually (Universal), is brilliant at many things, but his genius, I submit, is for thrusting characters into situations in which they feel driven to humiliate themselves. He is the Bard of Embarrassment. As he proved in his scripts for Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999), and Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), Curtis is happiest in a universe of sudden extroverts: of men and women who blurt out how they really feel, then freeze in mortification, then stammer on, cursing themselves when it’s over for being such asses. Then they go out and make still more embarrassing declarations—which is why we love them, especially when it’s all in the name of love.
Appropriately, Love Actually is Curtis’ own embarrassing declaration of love. The title comes from the old Troggs’ song “Love Is All Around,” the one that begins “I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes.” The movie’s original title was Love Actually Is All Around, and a prologue (read by Hugh Grant) avers that to understand this idea all you need to do is go to the arrivals terminal at Heathrow Airport and watch people hugging. By way of illustration, the film begins and ends with airport hugging montages: There are more hugs per square inch of celluloid than in all the Christmas movies in all the world.
Love Actually has too much of everything, actually—stars, cameos, crises, climaxes. Set in the weeks leading up to Christmas, it boasts nine (count ‘em) love stories, with another couple of subplots branching off. The stories are interwoven, but they don’t seem meant to comment on or illuminate one another. They’re just variations on a theme, some wildly comic, some melancholy, some cartoonish, some grimly realistic. The movie is a giant box of holiday chocolates, a few of them bittersweet but most of them densely nougaty, with love songs poured into the gaps like treacle. It’s terrific fun for an hour, but by the last of its 129 minutes you might find yourself going into insulin shock.
Given its fulsomeness, any summary of Love Actually is apt to degenerate into a list. At the top—hierarchically speaking—is Hugh Grant, who does his adorably abashed act as the new bachelor British prime minister. The PM arrives at his residence and is promptly smitten by Martine McCutcheon as Natalie, a radiant, working-class aide unaccountably labeled too plump by everyone but him. In a likely dig at the country’s current PM, Grant’s character stands up to the visiting American president—a creepily frozen-faced turn by Billy Bob Thornton, playing a peculiar cross between George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. This political interlude is not really a change of subject: The PM’s courage to cross the president publicly is born of rage at the Yank putting the moves on Natalie.
Emma Thompson is the PM’s sister: She and husband Alan Rickman have settled into a dull middle age; but he’s agonizing over whether or not to have a fling with his hotcha secretary (Heike Makatsch), who makes cow eyes at him and opens her legs. Rickman is also the boss (and amorous adviser) of Laura Linney, a love-smitten American whose sometimes violent schizophrenic brother—umbilically connected to her via her cell phone—makes other relationships dicey. Crime novelist Colin Firth comes home to find his brother sleeping with his girlfriend, so he heads for a French villa and falls for his Portuguese cleaning lady (Lúcia Moniz): Neither speaks a word of the other’s language, but the subtitles tell us they’re reading each other’s minds. Liam Neeson plays a grieving widower whose Haley Joel Osment-like son (Thomas Sangster) has redirected his emotion onto a beautiful girl in his school: His father advises him to become a drummer because they get women no matter what they look like. (Ringo Starr, he points out, married a Bond girl.) In other news, Thomas Lincoln has a mysterious antipathy to his buddy Chiwetel Ejiofor’s new bride, Keira Knightley, while a couple of movie sex-scene stand-ins grope each other all day but are too shy to ask each other out, and a geek dreams of going to America where the wenches allegedly throw themselves at Brits.
As a writer, Curtis is a wizard at keeping all these balls in the air; as a first-time director, he’s not nearly so nimble. Some of the serious threads—the schizophrenic brother, the grieving husband, a reference to 9/11—feel a little cheap in this bash-along context. And whenever Curtis puts on the brakes—in, for example, a scene between Linney and her brother in which he suddenly moves to strike her—the harsh reality feels exploitive.
It’s a good thing Curtis has a comic wild-card—a burned-out rocker called Billy Mack whose last-ditch attempt at a No. 1 record is a variation on “Love Is All Around,” with “love” replaced by “Christmas.” Billy is played by the Bill Nighy (pronounced “Nigh”), a dry, slightly mummified actor who was marvelous in a more modest English omnibus love movie called Lawless Heart, released in the United States this year. (He was also well-cast as a lordly vampire in Underworld , although he couldn’t really cut loose.) You’ll know why he owns Love Actually from his first scene, in which he records the song while holding his nose. In his second scene, in a Watford radio station, he drives his loyal-dog manager Joe (Gregor Fisher) to near apoplexy with impromptu quips about the rottenness of his record.
Nighy’s Billy Mack is refreshing in that he’s beyond embarrassment—at least until the end, when he makes his own unexpectedly heartfelt declaration of love. A couple of the other stories end grimly or unresolved, but the prevailing tone is fairy tale, with the characters’ sadness and isolation a prelude to some magical act of communion. Curtis’ other movies climax with something like the hitherto hesitant lover making a mad dash to the airport to stop the beloved from getting on a plane. In this one, there are four or five mad dashes and a host of intercut public declarations—all with the most god-awful jacked-up music pouring from the screen. It’s too florid, too calculated, too too. Here’s my emotional declaration: I love Richard Curtis’ work. But I can’t help feeling that the Bard of Embarrassment could use a touch more shame.