Love Actually (2003)
Main cast: Bill Nighy (Billy Mack), Gregor Fisher (Joe), Colin Firth (Jamie), Liam Neeson (Daniel), Thomas Sangster (Sam), Emma Thompson (Karen), Kris Marshall (Colin Frissell), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Peter), Andrew Lincoln (Mark), Keira Knightley (Juliet), Hugh Grant (The Prime Minister), Nina Sosanya (Annie), Martine McCutcheon (Natalie), Laura Linney (Sarah), Abdul Salis (Tony), Alan Rickman (Harry), Rodrigo Santoro (Karl), Lúcia Moniz (Aurelia), and Billy Bob Thornton (President of the United States)
Director: Richard Curtis

Love Actually is an unabashedly sentimental ensemble romantic comedy from the man that wrote that (overrated, in my opinion) movie Four Weddings And A Funeral. It tries to tackle nine major relationships in slightly over two hours, and at the end of the day, the movie tries to handle too many stories and shortchanges me in every one of them.

As ensemble movies go, every character is related to everyone else, if only in the flimsiest of ways. There are the long-married couple Karen and Harry, with Harry being tempted to perform a cuckold Christmas gig with his personal assistant. Karen's brother is the Prime Minister of England, and with Hugh Grant playing the Prime Minister and Billy Bob Thornton the President of the United States, I am too busy laughing at the punch line to figure out what exactly the punch line is. British former soap opera star and failed singer Martine McCutcheon plays Natalie, the foul-mouthed Monica-wannabe maid that captivates the Prime Minister. Natalie is called "fat" in this movie. Needless to say, she's not fat at all, not by real life standards. We can only dream of being as fat as Martine McCutcheon.

Karen is also the friend of Daniel. Daniel and his son Sam have to deal with the recent bereavement of Daniel's wife. Daniel plays the usual "Sad Sack" guy ensemble movies need to have - usually they have a dying HIV+ gay man, but I guess Christmas isn't the time for sappy and false affirmative action sentiments, so a bereaving widower will have to do instead in this case. Don't get me started on Daniel finding a new girlfriend at the end of the movie a few weeks after the wife's death - after he made a big show of missing the dead wife and all. Meanwhile, Harry's employee Sarah is in love with her handsome colleague Karl, blissfully unaware until the bitter end what members of the audience get right away: Karl is probably gay. Oh, and Sarah has a mentally handicapped brother. It's Christmas - we can't have HIV+ thingies spoiling the mood, after all. Mental handicap is okay though - the brother being straight but asexual and all that.

Meanwhile, Jamie, a full-time writer that still uses a typewriter and despite holding no other job, can still afford a big house and all (deadline, what's that?), plays the near-Christmas cuckold and to nurse his broken heart, flees to Italy where he falls for his Portuguese housekeeper Aurelia, whom he can't speak to at all thanks to language barriers. Call me cynical, but a man falling in love with a woman that cleans the house and takes care of him while being unable to talk to him sounds just like a bloody wet dream a man like Richard Curtis will wank off over. Jamie is friends with Juliet and her husband, and Juliet learns that the best man Mark is in love with her.

There are some trivial subplots, such as a loser Colin going to America to find a girlfriend and Sam in love with an American exchange student-cum-future American Idol winner. Before the movie causes me to die of a sugar shock, Curtis demonstrates that he knows at least the half-hearted definition of "cynicism" by having has-been music star Billy Mack trying to make a comeback by releasing a truly awful Christmas single.

It is hard to comment on the stories here because most of them are nothing more than four or five scenes spread out over two hours. The audience will have to focus on the performances rather than the story itself. In this case, Love Actually has many shamelessly overdramatic declarations of love and heartbreak and many actually work with me despite my better judgment. Mark's silent declaration of love to Juliet, using a radio and a series of cardboard pieces, is one I find utterly captivating. The boy Sam's dash through the airport to tell the future American Idol winner his love is nonsense, as he's what, thirteen? But still, I wish I had a boy going all that way to tell me he love me when I was that age, even if the boy looks an elf after meeting the front of a bus. Hugh Grant's dancing to the Pointer Sisters' Jump is really sexy while Colin Firth's bumbling self-effacing twit act actually works like charm this time around as he butchers Portuguese to declare his love for Aurelia.

But nothing can compare to the heartbreaking dignified grief of Emma Thompson's Karen or the expressive range of Laura Linney's portrayal of Sarah. The latter is especially frustrating as Linney is criminally underused in this movie and her story is ignored completely in the final happy ending scene. Alan Rickman is just doing his same old pinch-mouthed act and his British accent isn't going to let him get away with it this time. Rowan Atkinson, Ant and Dec, Denise Richards, and a poster of the boyband Blue make cameo appearances. For the best laughs, Bill Nighy steals the show completely as the thoroughly rascally Billy Mack and his very cynical wit. I have a great laugh at the scene where he gets on the Ant and Dec show to scribble "We have little pricks" on the poster of Blue, his rival for the Christmas Number One position, and when reminded that there are children watching the show, announces dramatically, "Don't buy drugs - be a pop star and they will give it to you for free!"

In the end, Love Actually is just a fluffy, ineffectual movie to sit down and experience a brief moment of vicarious joy in a world where people still make dramatic declarations of love for the silliest of reasons. It's a nice escape, but it's an escape that leaves no lingering pleasant memories in the aftermath. Comparable to an expensive Memory Lane card with a dramatic declaration of love that I know costs the sender only the time to sign the card along with the twenty bucks he spent on it - it's great, but it's nothing compared to a heartfelt handwritten note on a piece of paper in the sender's handwriting, truly - Love Actually is nice but absolutely contrived and artificial. How appropriate that this movie is released during the Christmas season.

Rating: 71

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