[Screen It]

(2003) (Hugh Grant, Colin Firth) (R)

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Romantic Comedy: Various couples and others deal with love and relationships in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
It's several weeks before Christmas in Britain and veteran rocker Billy Mack (BILL NIGHY), with aid of his longtime manager, Joe (GREGOR FISHER), has rerecorded a Christmas version of his smash hit single. As it starts to play on the radio, the new Prime Minister (HUGH GRANT) takes office and immediately finds himself smitten with one of his staff workers, Natalie (MARTINE McCUTCHEON), when not standing up to the visiting President of the U.S. (BILLY BOB THORNTON).

There's a new woman in Karen's (EMMA THOMPSON) life, but she isn't pleased about a young and attractive worker, Mia (HEIKE MAKATSCH), who is coming on to her husband, Harry (ALAN RICKMAN). When he's not enjoying that newfound attention and trying to figure out whether he should act upon it, he tells Sarah (LAURA LINNEY) that she should act on her longtime crush of coworker Karl (RODRIGO SANTORO).

Speaking of crushes, it seems that Mark (ANDREW LINCOLN) has one on Juliet (KIERA KNIGHTLEY). The only catch is that she's the new bride of his best friend, Peter (CHIWETEL EJIOFOR). While movie stand-ins John (MARTIN FREEMAN) and Judy (JOANNA PAGE) end up falling for each other while rehearsing a graphic sex scene, young Sam (THOMAS SANGSTER) tells his recently widowed stepfather, Daniel (LIAM NEESON), that he's in love with Joanna (OLIVIA OLSON), the most popular girl in school.

After discovering his girlfriend cheating on him with his brother, writer Jamie (COLIN FIRTH) moves out and finds himself falling for his new Portuguese housekeeper, Aurelia (LUCIA MONIZ), despite neither understanding the other. And young Colin (KRIS MARSHALL) has decided to head off to America where he hopes his looks, personality and British accent will help him bed many American women.

As the days count down toward Christmas, the various characters prepare for the holiday as well as love and the various relationships in their lives.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
As I've stated before, romantic comedies are basically critic-proof in that their target audience enjoys, can't see or doesn't mind the very things that drive reviewers crazy. It's a genre I can tolerate, but usually don't look forward to seeing. That's because most such efforts simply follow the same, time-tested but repetitive formula to a T.

That said, I'm usually a bit more accepting of the ones that originate from across the pond (that being England for those non-pond savvy readers), such as "Four Wedding and a Funeral" and "Notting Hill." While they also adhere to their own recipes if you will - consisting of large casts and multiple storylines rather than the standard man, woman and supporting cast found in most American ones - there's just something about them that I find to my liking.

Such is the case with "Love Actually," a film that marks the directorial debut of Richard Curtis who previously penned the aforementioned "rom-coms." Following the more is merrier principle, he's concocted a frothy, entertaining, sometimes touching and occasionally goofy romantic comedy mix featuring a huge (and talented) cast that appears in at least nine storylines.

Those who love the genre's standard trappings will thus probably enjoy the plethora of romantic characters and love-related plots. Truth be told, there is something infectiously charming about the overall offering in what amounts to the old "whole is greater than the sum of its parts" saying.

That said, there are a number of related problems. Beyond feeling like an elongated (and long, at nearly 130 minutes) British version of "The Love Boat," the plethora of people and subplots means that few get the time or opportunity to shine. Maybe that's the point - as it prevents any from becoming boring or falling prey to the genre's conventions and pitfalls - but everyone and everything does feel a bit shortchanged.

As to be expected, all of those characters and stories end up being related to each other in one way or another. Yet, the way in which Curtis has concocted that finale feels a bit too forced -- as if the filmmaker felt obligated to connect the dots - and cutesy.

Speaking of the latter, there are various moments that will either evoke gushing "aw's" from the genre lovers or the mass clearing of throats in others in an attempt to clear away all of the syrupy sweet movie phlegm.

That begins early in the film, when singing and then a progression of instrument playing suddenly breaks out at a wedding -- covering the Beatles' "All You Need is Love" -- and occasionally pops up here and there afterwards. That includes much of the material featuring characters played by Colin Firth ("What a Girl Wants," "Bridget Jones's Diary") and Lucia Moniz (making her feature film debut) as potential lovers who always manage to say just about the same thing, despite not being able to understand the other's spoken language. Viewer reaction to such moments will vary from cute and sweet to corny and contrived.

Considering all of those problems and limitations, the performers generally make good with their characters. There are various nice touches, including an homage of sorts to the Dylan/INXS card flipping communication by Andrew Lincoln ("Offending Angels," "Gangster No. 1") to the radiant Kiera Knightley ("Pirates of the Caribbean," "Bend it Like Beckham"). Funny moments are present (particularly most anything featuring Bill Nighy ("Blow Dry," "Still Crazy") as a forthright, veteran rocker), as well as amusing or clever bits of dialogue (or perhaps that's just the way Hugh Grant ("About a Boy," "Two Weeks Notice") delivers them).

The material touches on the serious such as Emma Thompson ("Primary Colors," "Sense and Sensibility") discovering her husband, Alan Rickman ("Die Hard," the "Harry Potter" films), being enticed by the office flirt, Heike Makatsch ("Anatomy 2," "Resident Evil"). Then there's the comedic, including Kris Marshall ("The Four Feathers," "Iris") heading off to America, the land of the free (sex, that is), or a combination of both, including widower Liam Neeson ("Gangs of New York," "The Haunting") trying to help his stepson, Thomas Sangster (making his feature debut), through the woes of first love.

That latter subplot, along with the Thompson one and another featuring Laura Linney's ("Mystic River," "You Can Count on Me") need to care for her institutionalized brother, are the only ones that really have some depth to them. Even so, they come off as only scratching the surface of their subject matter. Accordingly, one gets the feeling that Curtis should have either jettisoned some of the characters and stories or simply made two or more films to give them adequate time to breathe.

Generally winning despite often tripping over obstacles of its own making, "Love Actually" sets out to show that love is all around. For the most part, the entertaining and enjoyable offering succeeds at just that, resulting in a picture that you can't help but like and thus rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 23, 2003 / Posted November 7, 2003

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