Love Actually sustains a running joke about corny pop tunes, using such examples as the Bay City Rollers' "Bye Bye Baby," Olivia Olson's "All I Want for Christmas Is You," and Justin Timberlake's "Like I Love You." By all objective criteria, the movie implies, these are bad songs, but they nonetheless grab hold of some primordial, reptilian part of the heart and make you swallow hard. The film itself is a lot like that. Love Actually is predictable, calculating, tedious at times, and pushy at others, but it does grab hold of you and make you laugh at its jokes and sigh at its kisses. If you want to maintain your hipster cool, avoid this movie at all costs.
First-time director Richard Curtis, best known for writing the screenplays to Bridget Jones's Diary and Four Weddings and a Funeral, shamelessly cribs from the latter by including a wedding and a funeral in the first 15 minutes and by recycling Hugh Grant and Rowan Atkinson. Despite its reputation as a marshmallow chick flick, Four Weddings and a Funeral is a superb romantic comedy. Love Actually is nowhere near as good as that. It does, however, offer many of the same pleasures, albeit in diluted doses. Once again, multiple British men are attracted to multiple British women (and one token American) in relationships that are just about to begin, just about to end, or just about to right themselves after stumbling. Once again, an all-star cast create vivid characters out of slender material. Once again, the happy endings far outweigh the sad.
The story traces the five weeks before Christmas in contemporary London. Grant is the newly elected British prime minister, a very eligible bachelor who vies with Billy Bob Thornton, a Clinton-like American president, for the affections of an intern. Emma Thompson is the prime minister's sister, whose marriage to Alan Rickman is threatened by his flirtation with his secretary. Liam Neeson is a newly widowed father who must cope with his 11-year-old son's first major crush. Colin Firth is a crime novelist who is cuckolded by his brother and flees to a cottage in the South of France where he is attended by a gorgeous Portuguese maid.
And so on. After the first 20 minutes it's easy to see where all this is going, and that's exactly where it goes. But like a tear-jerking pop song in the hands of a great performer--and make no mistake, Grant, Thompson, Firth, and most of the others are great performers--the movie reaches its equivalent of a big, over-the-top final chorus like a steamroller that can't be stopped.