No critic likes kicking lapdogs (though many semi-secretly enjoy, as I do, punting the occasional Rhodesian Ridgeback), and Richard Curtis’s Love Actually is a veritable teacup poodle. It’s so lovey-dovey, anything but permissive coos may seem cruel. The word itself is pounded with Pentecostal insistence: love, love, love, lovelovelovelovelove. An old-school romantic with a soft skull and a heart as big as a cement mixer, Curtis here extends the niche he eked out with Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones’s Diary: love British style, handicapped slightly by corny circumstance and populated by colorful neurotics, one of whom is always Hugh Grant.
In a rare moment of inspiration, Curtis casts Grant as a new, Blairean prime minister—and one sequence pits him, gently, against slimy Texan president Billy Bob Thornton. But all that appears to be on this PM’s mind is the curvaceous sweetness of his office servant (Martine McCutcheon), and Grant hems, haws, and ho-di-hos his character’s way around the Parliament’s corridors of power, wondering how to ask her out. That’s just one thin story filament among many: Liam Neeson’s bruised widower trying to deal with his love-struck stepson, Alan Rickman’s office boss succumbing to his horny secretary’s come-ons, Laura Linney as a lovelorn nebbish-ess working up the courage to approach a hunky co-worker, Colin Firth as a hack novelist slowly falling for his gangly Portuguese housekeeper, ad infinitum. Most hilariously of all, Bill Nighy salts up the Christmas-eve-countdown scenarios as a spent, self-loathing rock star making a comeback with a seasonal revamp of his old hit, and his blisteringly honest media blitz stands as the film’s only, badly needed chord of cynicism.
Cretinous love songs from yesteryear clot the soundtrack like factory-dumped phosphates. When he isn’t overreaching for absurdity, Curtis can write bouncy patter, but each character gets about 60 seconds before the movie jumps deck to the next love-seeker and the next moony pratfall.