Cinema Signal:

Romance in Film
Vol I

. "Love Actually"

You like a romantic story? How about eight in one? Or, is it nine? This is a love comedy on steroids. As it explores a considerable number of manifestations of that condition, including true and abiding friendship, parental love and understanding, forbidden love, lust, fantasies, philanderings, marriage and more, it grows long and tedious as we are treated to enough characters to turn any screenwriter green with envy at what writer-director Richard Curtis creates with such ease.

The achievement here is not only the diversity of these stories dealing with the love theme, but in giving each vignette its due (and sometimes overdue). There's richness of character, drama, entertainment, pacing and, most assuredly, humor. This is the "American Comedy" writ large and overflowing. It makes much of the thesis that love is everywhere, an environmental abundance.

Leading the pack in terms of star power is Mr. Charm, Hugh Grant who, as England's new Prime Minister (what universe is this we're in?) falls for plumpish staff employee Natalie (Martine McCutcheon). She may not be a Monica Lewinsky look-alike exactly, but the suggestion is as evident as the gleam in the PM's eyes. And, when that lech of a U.S. President (Billy Bob Thornton) comes for a little state visit and to throw his weight around, his play for Natalie sets the PM's heart in an absolute tizzy.

Jamie (Colin Firth) an unlucky-in-love writer escapes to his remote cabin in the south of France to nurse his sore feelings by pursuing his muse in comfortable and languid isolation. What he doesn't count on in his scenario is that his Portuguese-speaking housekeeper Aurelia (Lucia Moniz), a girl without guile, is going to quickly cure his hurt and become the cause of a new one.

Harry (Alan Rickman) meanwhile, a master of his junior manager Sarah's (a truly tiresome Laura Linney) hidden affections for another office employee and Solomon himself in guiding her toward their desired destinies, this love maven is falling under the spell of his femme fatale of a secretary (burning hot Heike Makatsch) who is making every seductive play possible to take him from his wife of many comfortable years, Karen (droll Emma Thompson).

Imagine the emotional problems when your best friend Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor, "Dirty Pretty Things") marries the girl of your dreams, Juliet (Keira Knightly). Mark (Andrew Lincoln) handles this like he hates the girl, until she traps him in his lair and discovers the truth behind his standoffishness.

Widowed stepfather Daniel (Liam Neeson) gets into his doll of a little stepson's (pixie-cute Thomas Sangster) love problem, turning a level of fatherly understanding that could be the role model for all of mankind into a bond as indestructible as Kryptonite.

Then there's Billy Mack (Bill Nighy), an aging rock star ala Rod Stewart, whose line of self-deprecatory honesty is "seen it all, remember very little of it" who, in his crafty media onslaught to promote his Christmas song resigns his faithful manager to the shadows of the spotlight until he realizes something rare about loyalty and friendship.

Plots, as you can see, abound, with sub-plots straying around like loose dogs. One evokes "Dumb and Dumberer" as Colin (Kris Marshall), a lanky, love-starved Londoner who is convinced that his inability to attract women in his home town will be turned around when he and his British accent show up in America. In what should have been a dream-sequence, his images of self-delusion turn out just as predicted, turning stereotypical fantasy into cheap slosh.

In an even more curious vignette, nebbishy John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page) strike romantic paydirt while performing their work as porn movie stand-ins. This sequence brings new meaning to the term, restraint, and it's as unbelievable as it is the carnal attraction of the piece. Shame for its lascivious obviousness.

There you have the many compartment of the non-stop train that takes you clear to Christmas in a cannily timed arrival for the holidays even though some might feel the steam pressure too great to contain. The train conductor, Richard Curtis, comes to this his first directorial gig after proving his storytelling chops with "Four Wedding and a Funeral", "Notting Hill", and "Bridget Jones's Diary". The man knows how to do romantic comedy and cuts his directorial teeth with his own tour de romance.

Could someone in this extensive and distinguished company steal the show? I have a candidate for that unlikely accomplishment, but, to appreciate it, you had to have seen Bill Nighy in "Underworld", a part so manifestly evil that the worlds separating it from the raunchy let-it-all-hang-out hilarity in this one is enough to burst anyone's sense of typecasting.

This is a film dedicated to your entertainment in the same mode as Curtis's previous hits. Go, you weapy-eyed romantics, and enjoy its highlights and delights. It's mostly fun, actually.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Heike Makatsch intent on seducing her boss, Alan Rickman

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