Movie Review: Love Actually (2003)

Ultimate post-911 feel-good holiday movie (9/10)

All you need is love. — The Beatles

You look at the IMDb entry for Love Actually and you think they must have spent a year assembling so large a cast of quite competent working actors from stage and screen—I swear there are 100+ names on the list—not to mention acquiring the services of all the stars.  Anyway, regardless of how one feels about the acting profession, one has to hand it to all the beautiful people in this film for doing a first rate job in conveying a dozen separate love stories… not to mention kudos to the director for weaving them together so seamlessly.

Thus credit goes primarily to the director/writer, Richard Curtis, who has written such fine English fare as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones’s Diary.  On this occasion he also directs, and from the DVD extras we learn he was highly motivated to counter the negative energy from the 911 attacks —negative whether one believes the official conspiracy theory of 911 or the evidential alternative conspiracy theory(s) of 911.  And Curtis sought to do so explicitly through the healing energies of love and music in the lives of real people.  The soundtrack itself brings your spirit to a special place.

The movie begins with actual video footage taken at the Heathrow Airport arrival gates of people of all shapes, colors, and sizes embracing one another.  The caring yet confident voice of Hugh Grant, playing the newly elected prime minister of England, fades in with words that prove to be the movie’s overarching theme:

“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think of the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion is starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere; often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boy friends, girl friends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge, they were all messages of love.  If you look for it I’ve got a sneaky feeling you will actually find that love actually is all around.”

Which sequences to the first vignette of “love,” where a dissipated pop star Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) is trying unsuccessfully to sing a commercially modified version of “Love is All Around You.”  Keep in mind that the love in Love Actually, while generally romantic love, it’s also written to cover the friendship and familyship sort of love that surrounds these romantic instances.  We see the heartbreak of infidelity—or at least the inclination toward infidelity—, crushes between schoolchildren, unrequited love, sexually fulfilling love and love fulfilling sex, broken love, fixed love, a couple of stirring cases of true passionate love, and the anguish of love lost courtesy the Grim Reaper.  And muskrat love.

There’s a less subtle political subtext in LA, which works equally fluently with the universal love theme: the prime minister David (Hugh Grant) is hosting the US president (Billy Bob Thornton) for a state visit.  For the character of the president think of George Bush, loutish yet with an IQ elevated to 95.  Thornton comes to town, does his “I am the decider” routine, expecting to “get everything we came here for” from the longsuffering codependent UK weak sister.  Only the new single PM, inspired by his attraction to a young lady on his catering staff, behaves unexpectedly.

So if that’s leftist-libertarian-liberal rant, let’s make the most of it.

The political point certainly isn’t heavyhanded, more a skillful rapier thrust of wit into the heart of a malevolently unconscious 900-pound gorilla that nobody wants to confront directly.  Realizing I’ve given a bit of the story away here (with the sympathetic treatment of the prime minister), let me just say that the nature of the Love Actually plot makes it difficult to spoil it.  You have a dozen separate stories revolving about love; each of them has something unique to convey about the agonies and the ecstasies of that spiritual, emotional state.

A word about setting:  The action (with the exception of one young man’s flight to the States in search of willing American beauties) takes place in central London, with seemingly all the characters living within walking distance of one another.  The architecture is a charming combination of old and modern, with the spaces arrayed cleverly with an enviable quality of “livability.”  (I’m sure the promenade on the River Thames serving as backdrop for several scenes is famous in international esthetic circles… circles I have yet to enter decisively.  But it’s, to use a word frequently uttered in the film, “lovely.”)

Sure, these are the beautiful people in-crowd of London, reminds me of the social environment of Friends in Central Park, NY.  And one sees how relatively well-accommodated everyone from the prime minister, to store clerks, to bagel guys seems to be: nothing of the exurban islands of trophy-home sterility we see around major cities in the US.  Many Americans may envy breathing this air of neighborhood and community wafting along the well-kept cobblestones outside posh side-by-side condos.  Whether this is an unrealistic picture of that place, I can’t say, but I’d sure love to live in a vibrant, intelligent surrounding of human beings like this without the need for a car.

Love Actually has a wonderful sense of humor… such as the ‘bagel guy’ going to America on what his friends think a quixotic quest for “hot American chicks who are not stuck up and will share affections.” These scenes, when he arrives, in Milwaukee of all places, are worth the price of admission.

Tongue-in-cheek message: live your dream.

There’s so much density of entertainment value in this movie, I could go on for days: With respect to music, I’ll just mention that Kelly Clarkson’s The Trouble with Love is played once during the movie and then regales you as the credits flow at the end.  The only reason I don’t give the movie 10 stars is people would think I’m too sentimental.

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