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Crap, Actually

Love Actually takes the romance out of "romantic comedy."

Anyone seeking evidence of the death of romantic comedy will find it in abundance in Love Actually, which arrives in video stores this week. Written and directed by Richard Curtis (best known for penning Bridget Jones's Diary, Notting Hill, and Four Weddings and a Funeral), Love Actually announces its ambitions early: Too bold to offer us a thin, unconvincing romance, it instead offers us half a dozen. The film consists of several loosely  interlocking stories (please, bear with me): A cuckolded crime writer (Colin Firth) escapes to a villa in France, where he falls in love with his Portuguese maid; the bachelor British prime minister (Hugh Grant--yes, it's that kind of movie) falls in love with a young member of his household staff; the head of a nonprofit (Alan Rickman) breaks the heart of his wife (Emma Thompson) when he falls for his assistant; a widower (Liam Neeson) tries to help his eleven-year-old-stepson win the love of the most popular girl in school; a woman (Laura Linney) is unable to act on her longtime love for a colleague because of her devotion to her institutionalized brother; a new bride (Keira Knightley) tries to figure out why her husband's best friend is avoiding her; two movie body doubles discover a personal rapport while simulating sex acts; an aging rocker (Bill Nighy), in search of one last, nostalgia-driven hit, discovers that the (platonic) love of his life is, in fact, the manager who's stood by him for decades.

That a film with so many moving parts would be a mess is perhaps inevitable. That it would so utterly squander the talents of its exceptional cast (I struggle to think of a film that has done so little with so much) is inexcusable. The problems of Love Actually are encyclopedic. But as one needs to begin somewhere, I'll start with the preposterousness of Hugh Grant's performance as the prime minister. It's a good joke for about two minutes and might have made for a witty cameo. Unfortunately, it's the closest thing the film has to a central role, and it's disastrous. Grant has two successful modes as an actor: stuttering, self-deprecating underdog, and decadent, sleazy overdog. Having written the two films in which Grant best executed these routines (Notting Hill and Bridget Jones, respectively), Curtis apparently decided to merge them into an overunderdog hybrid, a man of exceptional accomplishment and power who nonetheless behaves like the embarrassed owner of an unsuccessful bookshop. The absurdities pile up quickly, beginning with his decision to break off the Anglo-American "special relationship" because he didn't like the way the U.S. president (Billy Bob Thornton) leered at his sweetie, and proceeding downhill from there. Grant's ordinary-guy-in-extraordinary-office schtick owes much to Kevin Kline's performance in Dave. The important difference is that Kline wasn't actually the president, just some lovable schnook who happened to look like him.

The film is riddled with such errors in judgment: the absurd precocity of Neeson's preteen stepson (enough to make a sitcom producer gag); the motif of male bosses wooing much younger subordinates; the recurrent references to how fat various characters are; the intrusive, Christmas-at-Pottery-Barn soundtrack; etc. But, however annoying, these are relatively superficial flaws. The true failure of Love Actually lies in its treatment of its announced subject matter. The movie opens with a scene at the arrivals gate at Heathrow airport, where reunited family members hug happily. "It seems to me that love is everywhere," Grant announces in an unctuous voiceover. "Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends." But Love Actually is not really about these varied forms of love. Yes, there are the subplots involving Nighy and his manager, Neeson and his stepson, Linney and her brother, and the Rickman-Thompson marriage. But the central concern of the movie--and subject of, by my count, seven of its storylines--is not just romantic love, but romantic love of a particular kind: new love, untested love, infatuated love, love before the first "I love you" and before the first kiss.

It's been much remarked in recent years that a central ingredient of romantic comedy, the obstacle that must be overcome for the lovers to be together, has gotten conspicuously more difficult to come by. The classic impediments--parental disapproval, difference in social class, etc.--have largely fallen away in real life, forcing filmmakers to invent new, sometimes ridiculous hurdles (e.g., one of the lovers lives in Seattle and the other in Baltimore). Love Actually pioneers an alternative approach, the revolutionary idea that there really are no obstacles: The primary hindrance to romantic fulfillment is merely the fear of declaring one's love. As soon as the characters in the film find the courage to say "I love you," their romantic journeys are essentially over and they go straight to the happily-ever-afters. The idea that there could be any consequences or complications associated with, say, the prime minister of England shacking up with a domestic staffer half his age, or with a cosmopolitan English writer wedding a provincial Portuguese domestic with whom he has not shared a word of common language are of no concern to Love Actually. The word is the deed: By speaking love, the characters realize it.

Though not quite all of the characters. In the two romantic subplots that face genuine obstacles, Love Actually shows its true colors. Linney's dreamed-of romance with her co-worker (whom she's loved from afar for "two years, seven months, three days, and, I suppose, an hour and thirty minutes") does face a real complication: How can she find time for love and still be there for her schizophrenic brother, who calls her cell phone constantly? The movie's answer? She can't. On the basis of one attempted sexual encounter interrupted by brotherly calls, Linney and her soul mate decide the game is not worth the candle. Neither makes any further attempt to overcome what, by the laws of cinema as well as life, ought to be a manageable hindrance to nuptial bliss. For her there will be no love, actually.

The way the movie handles the difficulties in Rickman and Thompson's marriage is more depressing still. Overcome by his assistant's sexual advances, Rickman buys her a gold necklace, which Thompson finds in his coat pocket. Toward the end of the film, she confronts him, in one of the few scenes that evokes raw, genuine emotion. "Imagine your husband bought a gold necklace and, come Christmas, gave it to someone else," she tells him, on the verge of tears. "Would you stay, knowing life would always be a little bit worse?" How is this dilemma resolved? In by far the film's most cowardly omission, it isn't. We see the two only once more, exchanging a few opaque words in a second, tiresome airport scene that closes the movie. Is the marriage dead? Has it been revived--and if so, how? We're left to fill in the blanks ourselves. Resolving difficult situations is an enterprise for which Love Actually, despite its 135-minute running time, has no patience. If saying "I love you" won't do the trick, the film tells us, then you should probably just drop the whole thing. This sentiment, it seems to me, comes very close to representing the end of romance. The tagline for Love Actually is "The Ultimate Romantic Comedy." Perhaps. But not in the sense the producers intended.

The Home Movies List:
The Love Actually cast does romantic comedy

Notting Hill (Hugh Grant). The only successful romantic comedy (as opposed to simply comedy) Richard Curtis has written to date, it owes much to its leads, who are both smack dab in the middle of their comfort zones--Grant playing the likable bumbler and Julia Roberts playing herself.

Much Ado About Nothing (Emma Thompson). Thompson and then-husband Kenneth Branagh may not be Hepburn and Tracy, but they bring notable wit and energy to this classic battle of the sexes. As a bonus, the film provides yet further evidence that Denzel can act and Keanu can't.

Truly, Madly, Deeply (Alan Rickman). He's glum, and perpetually freezing, and--oh, yes--dead. But that doesn't make Rickman any less endearing in this small, touching comedy from 1991.

The Importance of Being Earnest (Colin Firth). A film best not compared too closely with its source material, as the additions and alterations to Wilde's original are ill-advised. If one can overlook this, however, the play's spark is still in evidence and the performances--including sadly underutilized Rupert Everett, suddenly omnipresent Judi Dench, and a British-inflected Reese Witherspoon--are a pleasure.

Bend It Like Beckham (Keira Knightley). More successful as a cross-cultural comedy than a romantic one, but still a pleasant alternative to the shallow sentiment and dizzying cross-plots of Love Actually.

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