The movie opens at an airport arrivals area, where all manner of couples celebrate their reunion with hugs. While a voice-over explains that “love actually is all around” (helpfully clearing up the ambiguity of the awkward title), we are led to believe that the many plotlines will treat us to love in all its forms. What a surprise, then, to discover that half the major stories involve a successful man gone all wobbly over a much younger woman in his employ. Perhaps still transfixed by the taboos of the once-robust British class system, Curtis seems to think that nothing could be more erotic than the subordinate who fetches tea or dusts the crockery. Do old people fall in love? Do those without access to expensive hair products fall in love? Curtis doesn’t have time for such riff-raff.
Just as an epic poem must include a descent into hell, no Brian Curtis picture is complete without Hugh Grant. Capitalizing on Grant’s patented brew of befuddlement and charm, Curtis casts him as the new, vaguely Blairlike Prime Minister. In his first 30 seconds on the job, he is completely unmanned by the sight of the youngest woman on his staff. During production, even Grant wondered if the audience would believe that a character so easily distractible could have managed to propel himself to the apex of power. Always pressed for time, Curtis tries to outfit his star with a backbone by hastily concocting a showdown (over what exactly we never learn) between the PM and a bullying American president (Billy Bob Thornton). At a joint press conference, Grant mind-bogglingly announces that the United Kingdom no longer considers America a friend, bringing ecstasy to his countrymen and a dewy mist to the eyes of his now-enthralled underling. One is left to suppose that this bizarre political theater realizes the fantasy of every white middle-aged Englishman alarmed by sexual and national decline: to seduce a post-adolescent by telling the United States to take a hike. What all this has to do with love as actually experienced on planet Earth is anyone’s guess.
In Curtis’ universe, unreality reigns. A pair of naked stand-ins on the set of a porn film turn out to be timid and virginal, barely able to muster the nerve for a goodnight kiss. A randy loser intends to deploy his British accent in a sexual conquest of America. (We shudder for him when we reflect that, with Grant at the helm, war might be declared at any moment.) So far do we drift from the real world that when we hear a stepdad (Liam Neeson) coach his 10-year-old boy on the best way to bed his little playmates, it hardly occurs to us to be disgusted.
Into all this Curtis plops the story of a couple (affectingly played by Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman) stuck in a loving marriage from which the romance has sadly evaporated. The husband’s eye begins to stray toward (whom else?) his twenty-something secretary. There’s nothing new in this premise, and with only a quarter-hour ration of screen time, nothing fresh develops. What is novel is the jarring change of tone this plot creates. It’s as if clips from “Masterpiece Theater” had been scattered throughout an MTV road-trip movie. Like the occasionally good gags — especially those delivered by Bill Nighy as an over-the-hill rocker attempting a comeback — the genuinely moving moments offered by Thompson and Rickman serve mostly to remind us that the whole of “Love Actually” is less than the sum of its many, many parts. ** S