Quite funny, actually.
Imagine a romantic comedy made up of just the good bits, the scenes you tell your friends about to make them go see it. Imagine one with galaxies of star-crossed lovers, exchanging longing glances or lingering kisses. Imagine it's left out the boring bits, done away with the dud lines, the foot-tapping explaining bits, the mawkish-but-seemingly-essential-touching moments. Imagine you've recruited just about every comic actor in Britain, and all of the good-looking ones. Now imagine it's Christmas, and London is as beautiful, as beguiling, as clean as Paris.
You're watching Love Actually, whose title has to remind you that what it's really about, just in case you missed the seven or eight storylines of adoration and desire crashing stickily into each other, like a collision of children's trucks packed with chocolate eclairs. A movie that celebrates love in all its silliness, its moments of pathos, its heady addictiveness. And which, if you're anything like me, will make you laugh out loud several times.
Director Richard Curtis, writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, now has the rudder of the Love Boat and intends to make the most of it. The London of Curtis, who was born in New Zealand most of fifty years ago, is the London of the expat, some have posited. It's like a tourist's tour of the city, a business-classer who stays in a good hotel, goes out only to nice restaurants or guide-approved ethnic eateries, and who never goes to, say, the back streets of Peckham or Seven Sisters. Not only that, it's a place where the British PM (Hugh Grant) can deliver a stirring, patriotic speech that puts the slimy US pres (Billy Bob Thornton) in his place. As we also know, it's where educated types can cuss prettily at any occasion, do extraordinarily rude things, dance to a soundtrack of old pop songs, and the wily can evade the most stringent, post 9/11 security if it's in aid of a meaningful snog.
But Curtis is wise enough -- and funny enough -- to play on this, to acknowledge that his world is a fantasy usually brought on by a sugar rush and too many egg-nogs, most clearly (and amusingly) signalled when one gormless character goes offshore in search of gorgeous American babes and inevitably succeeds with honours.
Inevitably, delineating 22 main characters (according to the publicity material) and truncating what seem like hundreds of storylines is sometimes fraught to the point of pleasant failure. Some, such as porn movie stand-in John (Martin Freeman, The Office's Tim) wooing his opposite, go AWOL. Because so many short cuts are taken to get from desire to destiny, characters are presented as fully whole vessels of wit and wuv.
Who's best in this masterpiece of staying the good side of ridiculous? Alan Rickman is sublimely insouciant as the design outfit boss who's married to Karen (Emma Thompson) but attracts the eye of his flirty secretary, though the panic over his buying a trinket for his admirer is a little laboured. Bill Nighy has a whale of a time mocking the preprogrammed fun of the music industry, playing washed-up ex-druggie singer Billy Mack who's flogging a truly crappy Christmas single. Thompson and Liam Neeson carefully handle the bulk of the pathos job, Neeson in particular finding plenty of sensitivity and restraint as a father, Daniel, who is unable to reach his son Sam after the death of his wife/mother. It turns out, it shouldn't surprise you, that the doe-eyed Sam (Thomas Sangster) is just another sap who's been struck by the vicissitudes of Eros. I admit to liking all the characters, instant back-story as they are. Even Colin Firth, who's a writer who buggers off to a ramshackle villa on the continent, only to be wildly distracted by his Portuguese housekeeper. He's called Jamie, but don't expect much different from Mr Darcy, it's what he's paid to be here for. Hugh Grant's PM is, well, Hugh Grant, a politician you might, actually, want to have a drink with. He's besotted with his tea lady, but why doesn't he just shag her, like in real life? Oh yes, that's right.
Mark Broatch usually writes film reviews for The Independent (though don't expect them to get posted to the site).