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


The other genuine comic spark comes from Bill Nighy, playing a washed-up, dissolute rock star named Billy Mack, who is trying for a comeback with a treacly Christmas record. Billy says shocking, hilarious things in television and radio interviews, and his casual indifference to proper decorum makes him the most honest character in the film.

The problem is that the movie, more than any of the characters in it, is a mess of crossed signals, swerving between cynicism and sincerity without quite knowing the difference between them. It is most grotesque when it tries for earnest drama, parading the grief of a widower (Liam Neeson) and the humiliation of a middle-aged wife (Emma Thompson) before us when it thinks our throats need lumping.

It is disturbing to see Thompson's range and subtlety so shamelessly trashed, and to see Laura Linney's intelligence similarly abused as a lonely, frustrated do-gooder. The fate of their characters suggests that women who are not young, pert secretaries or household workers have no real hope of sexual fulfillment and can find only a compromised, damaged form of love. Perhaps Curtis wishes to offer this as an insight into contemporary social arrangements; if so, his indifference to the cruelty of those arrangements is truly breathtaking.

But it is unlikely that any particular insight was intended. Instead, Love Actually is a patchwork of contrived naughtiness and forced pathos, ending as it began, with hugging and kissing at the airport (where returning passengers are perhaps expressing their relief at being delivered from an in-flight movie like this one). The loose ends are neatly tied up, as they are when you seal a bag of garbage -- or if you prefer, rubbish.

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