Here's a verbal Rorschach test: when you hear the term "crowd-pleasing" attached to a movie, does it seem a recommendation or a dis? How you respond to this may determine your reaction to Richard Curtis's "Love Actually," a panoramic, star-studded British romantic comedy that is very eager to be liked. Curtis is the talented fellow who wrote "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Notting Hill" (not to mention "Bridget Jones's Diary"). This is the first feature he's both written and directed, and it seems designed to guarantee he'll get to direct another: failure is not an option. In pursuit of laughs and lumps in the throat, Curtis employs every clever or hoary trick he's ever learned, freely pillaging his own movies and others'. Offering up nine loosely connected love stories, Curtis has whipped up a heaping meal of cinematic comfort food, sweet as English pudding and just spicy enough to earn an R rating.
The movie baldly announces its "love is everywhere" theme with a montage of embraces at the arrivals area of Heathrow airport, a sequence that could easily be mistaken for a long-distance-telephone commercial. "Love Actually" then plunges into its multiple tales of heterosexual romance, which unfold in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The sheer size of the cast is dizzying--as you'll soon see. At the top of the social ladder is the bachelor Prime Minister (Hugh Grant, in his best diffident-charm mode), who finds himself preoccupied with a curvaceous staffer (Martine McCutcheon) from a dodgy part of town. The P.M.'s sister (Emma Thompson) is grappling with the wandering eye of her husband (Alan Rickman), whose saucy secretary (Heike Makatsch) is doing her best to seduce him. This triangle doesn't really resolve itself, it just peters out.
Meanwhile, a cuckolded mystery writer (Colin Firth) retreats to France for solace, where he falls for his Portuguese maid (Lucia Muniz). Unfortunately, neither understands the other's language. (You wonder if Curtis is aware that, in most of the affairs here, men are masters and women are servants.) Puppy love is represented by 11-year-old Sam (Thomas Sangster), who is coached in courtship by his recently widowed father (Liam Neeson). The tone shifts uneasily from bedroom farce to masochistic creepiness in a strand involving a pathologically unassertive American (Laura Linney) whose guilt-ridden devotion to her mentally ill brother continually foils the consummation of her lust for her co-worker (hottie Rodrigo Santoro). Are you following all this? There's more.
The unexpected MVP of the cast is Bill Nighy, who gets the biggest laughs playing a lewd, jaded, over-the-hill rock star hoping to make a comeback with a dismal Christmas makeover of "Love Is All Around." Further broad comic relief comes in the form of a randy, oft-spurred young waiter (Kris Marshall) who's convinced that sexual salvation awaits him in Wisconsin, where his English accent will charm the pants off the natives. Then there are the shy young lovers who meet, naked, as stand-ins for the stars of an erotic movie--a one-joke gag Curtis milks twice too often.
Yet another thread, on the theme of unrequited love, involves a newly wed beauty (Keira Knightley) who discovers that her husband's best friend (Andrew Lincoln) is hopelessly in love with her. The Hugh Grant sequences are among the most delightful (if not the most plausible), and they allow Curtis to get in a barbed anti-Blair and anti-American aside in the form of Billy Bob Thornton's visiting U.S. president, a reptilian amalgam of skirt-chasing Clinton and bully-boy Bush.
As a director, Curtis is nothing if not promiscuous, equally embracing his best and worst ideas. This is the sort of movie in which a crowd of strangers breaks into applause as one character publicly proposes to another (a device that was overworked 10 years ago). Yet the scene works because the proposal itself is hilarious. Slick, expertly acted and shameless, "Love Actually" is alternately beguiling and bloated, witty and warmed over, smart and pandering. The majority is likely to swoon; the minority will squirm their way through it.