Fri, Feb 13, 2004 - Page 20 News List

'Love Actually' sets new standards for bad taste and inconsequentiality

The British seem to have cornered the market in whimsy and another Hugh Grant filler will not dispel that impression

By A. O. Scott  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The cast of Love Actually is strong on British actors with a comedic bent.

PHOTO COURTESY OF UNIVERSAL

Love Actually, which opens around the country today, is an indigestible Christmas pudding from the British whimsy factory responsible for such reasonably palatable confections as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones's Diary. A romantic comedy swollen to the length of an Oscar-trawling epic -- nearly two and a quarter hours of cheekiness, diffidence and high-tone smirking -- it is more like a record label's greatest-hits compilation or a "very special" sitcom clip-reel show than an actual movie.

The air is thick with bad pop songs, which those plucky, ironical Britons seem to love in spite of their badness. A sparkling British-American cast of newly minted and long familiar stars chirp, swoon, pine, quip and shed the odd tear. Presiding over it all is the new prime minister, a twinkly bachelor with a tonsorial resemblance to Tony Blair, who is played by none other than Hugh Grant. As he did in the far superior About a Boy, Grant makes a climactic onstage appearance at a school talent show. He also sings Good King Wenceslas and disco-dances around 10 Downing Street in his shirt sleeves.

In his opening voice-over, Grant establishes a new standard for bad taste masquerading as its opposite when he introduces this fluffy farrago, written and directed by Richard Curtis, with a reference to the World Trade Center attacks. The phone calls made from the towers, he suggests, show that however perilous the state of the world, "love is all around." Further support for this thesis is gleaned from the arrival gate at Heathrow, where people tend to hug and kiss each other a lot.

Like much else in Love Actually, you almost buy this moment of banal sentiment, because it is so prettily shot and smartly spoken. But the film's governing idea of love is both shallow and dishonest and its sweet, chipper demeanor masks a sour cynicism about human emotions that is all the more sleazy for remaining unacknowledged. It has the calloused, leering soul of an early-1960s rat-pack comedy, but without the suave, seductive bravado. The worst kind of cad is the one who thinks he's really a

Film Notes

Directed by: Richard Curtis

Starring: Alan Richman (Harry), Bill Nighy (Billy Mack), Colin Firth (Jamie), Emma Thompson (Karen), Hugh Grant (Prime Minister), Liam Neeson (Daniel), Martine Mccutcheon (Natalie), Heike akatsh (Mia) Rowan Atkinson (Rufus)

Running Time: 128 minutes

Taiwan Release: Today


sensitive guy deep down.

Most of the picture's half-dozen or so romantic subplots -- which lie scattered about like torn wrapping paper on Christmas morning -- involve workplace dalliances of one kind or another. The ones with the best chances of success all involve an older male boss and a young female subordinate. Jamie (Colin Firth), a writer cuckolded by his own brother, retreats to a villa in the South of France and falls for his Portuguese housekeeper, Aurelia, who speaks no English and who obligingly strips down to her underwear to rescue manuscript pages that have blown into the lake.

Harry (Alan Rickman), the head of a nonprofit organization, is besotted with his secretary, Mia (Heike Makatsh), who makes no secret of her attraction to him. The prime minister, moral exemplar of the nation, develops a crush on Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), a member of the Downing Street household staff. When the goatish president of the US, in London for a state visit, puts the moves on her, the PM's jealousy precipitates a chill in British-American relations (and also makes him a national hero).

The funniest and most winning on-the-job romance bubbles up between two people (Martin Freeman and Joanna Page) who work as body doubles on a movie set, miming explicit sex scenes in the absence of the prudish stars. As their naked bodies go through the motions, the two of them chat mildly about traffic and the weather and their mutual attraction is sealed, on the first date, by a chaste kiss on the cheek.

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