ZERO STARS/**** Image B+ Sound A- Extras A-
starring Alan Rickman, Bill Nighy, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson
written and directed by Richard Curtis
by Walter Chaw I actively, aggressively dislike this film. Richard Curtis's Love Actually says something of its intentions in a subplot involving an aged rocker (Bill Nighy) who knows he's creating a reprehensible piece of garbage in an attempt to cash in on the gaffed demographic that champions boy bands as the pinnacle of the art. The picture is a sex comedy in the worst senses of the genre: It's puerile, misogynistic, and breathtakingly stupid, with a keen focus on pratfalls and serendipity--all the while hoping that you won't notice the inappropriateness of its plays for heart-warming uplift. Curtis, after scoring a couple of times in the genre as screenwriter with Notting Hill and The Tall Guy, chooses Love Actually as his directorial debut, and its hatefulness speaks to the source of the comprehensive misanthropy of Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean (Atkinson makes a cameo; Curtis is a writer for "Mr. Bean"). A shame that Curtis's hyphenate turn begins to betray the man as ugly and self-indulgent.
Impossible to describe the plot in a way that's interesting, Love Actually is about nipples and people falling in love; about little boys who breach Heathrow Airport's security system without a ripple; about stammering British Prime Ministers who initiate international incidents from sexual jealousy of philandering U.S. presidents (Yankees in Curtis's world are sex-crazed idiots--a strange salvo to be fired from a ship populated entirely with sex-crazed Limey idiots); and about devastating social injustices and individual failings as gentle whimsy. It will tell you that it's about family, friendship, and love, but Love Actually wallows in artifice, adolescent leering, and contempt for people who like this sort of roundelay romantic sewage and won't notice they're being mollycoddled, condescended to, and, ultimately, hated. It's a holiday movie with a countdown to Christmas the only thing resembling structure to the sprawling, unforgivable, overlong mess--a curious throwback to the Studio System where actors who seem otherwise intelligent are shoehorned into a disgustingly facile vanity piece.
Colin Firth engages in a stupid cross-cultural love affair with a Portuguese maid, punctuated with malapropism-heavy dialogue, unconvincing flirtation, and a conclusion in a weird nether-restaurant that's infinitely more interested in conveying a deep, abiding abhorrence for obese people (an ethnic father calls his daughter "Ms. Dunkin Donut 2003") than the blossoming of new love. Fresh widower Liam Neeson helps his adorable stepson pursue his dream of becoming a drummer to catch the eye of a class diva, and PM Hugh Grant decides he wants to make one of his classless house servants (Martine McCutcheon) his First Lady. (These two storylines end up onstage of a sickening children's nativity pageant, of course.) Then there's the strumpet secretary (Heike Makatsch) chasing her boss (Alan Rickman) around the desk, her boss the husband of dowdy Karen (Emma Thompson)--she herself the PM's sister; the horny dork (Kris Marshall) who discovers that America is full of stupid bimbos dying to get picked up in a bar and engage in orgies; the secretary (Sarah) who can't have a relationship because of her dangerously disturbed brother; and the impossibly beautiful young bride (Keira Knightley) whose husband's (Chiwetel Ejiofor) best friend has a crush on her. Not even mentioning that Nighy's doddering rock legend is not only the one thing of any value in the picture, but also, shockingly, the film's moral centre.
Love Actually is about two secretaries, two maids, four sluts, four idealized objects of worship, and one middle-aged woman of dignity who's made the cuckold of her husband's dalliance. The ways in which women are portrayed in the picture vacillate wildly from seeing the gender as servile or promiscuous, predatory or simpering, and, save Thompson's character, to a one, frantically in need of a man to save them from poverty, blue-collar professions, and lives of quiet desperation. I forgot to mention the two movie-stand-ins who fall in love while mimicking sex on movie sets--an important elision in that the subplot suggests the sort of post-modern knowledge of the picture's own astonishing disregard for coherence, a cleverness that makes me want to put a fist through it. A clip from Titanic furthers Curtis's disdain while demonstrating beyond any question of a doubt that this well is bone dry. Love Actually is hellish, protracted, and by turns so sickly sweet and disturbingly caustic that it must stand as one of the worst films of the year.
by Bill Chambers Love Actually arrives on DVD in competing widescreen and fullscreen editions from Universal. The former's 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is problematic in that it lacks anything resembling pure black, and while this doesn't hurt brightly lit scenes, it makes dark interiors look washed-out. As well, many obvious second-unit shots suffer from a coarse appearance, though detail is crystalline and compression artifacts are undetectable. (Let it be noted that the fullscreen version, which we sampled, is so grainy as to be almost unwatchable apart from the standard compositional complaints.) Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, Love Actually's mix is sublimely clear, showing more invention than the typical comedy soundtrack in its rear-channel vocal cues.
Writer-director Richard Curtis dominates a spirited audio commentary with relatively well-behaved actors Hugh Grant, Bill Nighy, and Thomas Sangster that covers a rash of topics, including how Jim Henson's funeral inspired one scene (ironically, the wedding sequence), but it's the meaty deleted scenes featurette (37 mins./10 scenes) in which host Curtis is at his savviest. Almost everything that was cut out to get the movie down from 3.5 hours to 135 minutes is equal or superior to what was left in, but it's worth noting that Curtis's alarming proclivity for making light of body-image insecurities is just as prevalent among the elisions. And though I understand the rationale behind each lift, I think everybody's opinion of Love Actually would've gone up a notch had Curtis found a way to leave in a pithy and gracefully-handled subplot concerning a lesbian headmistress and her cancer-afflicted lover. Those who can't get enough naked Joanna Page will thrill to a supplemental encounter between the body doubles.
In "The Music of Love Actually" (8 mins. not counting songs), Curtis expounds on five key music selections (Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," Olivia Olson's "All I Want for Christmas is You," Eva Cassidy's "Songbird," The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows," and composer Craig Armstrong's "Total Agony Theme"), between discussions of which the DVD branches to the passages of the film that utilized them. Curtis fawns over Mitchell's overproduced rerecording of "Both Sides Now" and says he listens to Mariah Carey as a pick-me-up (unless that's British for Chinese water torture, his tastes definitely run counter to mine), but since talking about music is kind of like climbing a religious or political pulpit, I applaud his courage. Kelly Clarkson's video for "The Trouble with Love Is," forced trailers for Along Came Polly and Peter Pan, and a superfluous DVD-ROM interface round out the platter. Originally published: April 27, 2004.