'Love Actually': THR's 2003 Review

Mary Evans/UNIVERSAL PICTURES/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

On Nov. 7, 2003, an R-rated ensemble romantic comedy hit theaters across America. The film, Love Actually, would later become a (much-debated) holiday staple on television screens. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below: 

Love Actually reminds you of an elaborate Christmas card that tumbles apart with pop-up figures, silly/charming greetings and perhaps even a jingle. It probably cost more than the gift it heralds, and you can't help but laugh at the audacity of such an aggressively cheerful card. Clearly, the gift giver wants to love and be loved, and only a Scrooge would deny him his reward. But you also wish he'd heard the phrase "less is more."

The gift giver is Richard Curtis, a writer (Four Weddings and a FuneralNotting Hill) and, for the first time here, director of comedies that focus on the pursuit of love. Curtis' real gift is that of sharp, rapid-fire dialogue, easily recognizable characters, a benign view of humanity and a knack for making sentimentality feel righteous. This movie, for all its calculation and manipulation, comes from a true believer. He really does believe — as Oscar Hammerstein II once insisted a composer such as himself must — in "raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens." Audiences should respond to the determinedly feel-good nature of Love Actually as a top-flight cast of (mostly) British actors sells its love message very well.

The movie is less a traditional story than an elaboration of a theme. This gets pronounced by a narrator at the opening as you watch friends and family tearfully greet at London's Heathrow Airport: "General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that. Seems to me that love is everywhere."

The movie flips among myriad stories in the weeks before Christmas, none terribly original or compelling in itself, but in the aggregate they illustrate Curtis' theme. A new bachelor prime minister (Hugh Grant) walks into 10 Downing Street and is immediately smitten with a staff member (Martine McCutcheon). A recently widowed stepfather (Liam Neeson) struggles to forge a deeper relationship with his late wife's son (Thomas Sangster). An executive (Alan Rickman) encourages a female employee (Laura Linney) to act on her longtime crush on a fellow worker (Rodrigo Santoro), even as he debates the wisdom of falling into an affair with a most willing colleague (Heike Makatsch), thus betraying his wife of many years (Emma Thompson).

A bride (Keira Knightley) comes to realize that her husband's best mate (Andrew Lincoln) is madly in love with her. A cuckolded novelist (Colin Firth) flees to the south of France only to become infatuated with the Portuguese maid (Lucia Moniz) despite their inability to speak each other's language. An aging rock star (a hilarious Bill Nighy) launches a comeback with a Christmas song he knows is crap and freely says so on a truth-telling tour.

Squeezed between these subplots are eminently disposable ones such as two movie stand-ins who shyly fall in love while entirely naked or a food vendor who believes a trip to any bar in America will yield a bevy of beauties to fall for his English accent.

These plot threads (and they really are threads) contain little substance. Each is intriguing, but with the exception of the widower and stepson, none achieves any resonance. All are too fragmentary, though containing enough clever dialogue and sexy moments to distract from the sheer flimsiness.

The production is a winning one, with London turned into a winter wonderland with a side excursion to a rather summery-looking France. As always with a Curtis comedy, the stories pivot around major set pieces — a wedding, funeral, a school Christmas pageant and an implausible news conference in which the British PM dresses down an arrogant American president (Billy Bob Thornton). Curtis imbues his tales of broken hearts and ecstatic adoration with a festive passion and a cheerful optimism that sweeps the viewer up. It's only afterward that you wonder when the writer fell in love with the maid or why a prime minister would have no social life or how the wife forgave her wandering husband.

Bottom Line: A blizzard of Christmas stories, each insubstantial as a snowflake, but cumulatively they smother you in good cheer. — Kirk Honeycutt

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