Rom-Com Review: "Love Actually"

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

Rating: R
Length: 135 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 14, 2003
Directed by: Richard Curtis
Genre: Comedy / Romance / Drama

"Love Actually" was released in 2003 as a moderately budgeted Christmas-themed movie. It became an unexpected hit worldwide, reaching box-office grosses of almost $250 million. With an enormous cast filled with familiar faces and its complicated, interlocking story lines, "Love Actually" offered something for everyone. Since its DVD release, it has become a must-watch Christmas standard for many.

The huge cast and interwoven plots and character relationships should make "Love Actually" a difficult movie to follow, yet the story lines are so deftly tied together that it becomes a delight. The movie holds up well to multiple viewings, allowing viewers to focus on a new set of relationships each time through, finding little moments to cherish that they might not have noticed on previous viewings.

Beginning with a framing device intended to remind the viewer of the amount of love in the world, the movie launches into a set of stories that reflect just about every kind of love. The Bill Nighy-Gregor Fisher story, in which Nighy is hilarious as a dissipated old rock star trying cynically for one last hit, celebrates the love between two old friends. The love story between Juliet (Keira Knightly) and Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) seems straightforward. However, it takes an unexpected twist toward unrequited love when best friend Mark (Andrew Lincoln) reveals he is in love with Juliet but will not get in the way of her new marriage. Colin Firth and LĂșcia Moniz show what happens when two people who cannot even speak to each other nevertheless find that they are perfect for each other.

The movie's interlocking stories continue with the unexpectedly heartbreaking story of Harry (Alan Rickman) and Karen (Emma Thompson), who appear to have the perfect marriage until Harry develops a crush on his highly sexualized secretary. Although he does not consummate the relationship, when Karen discovers the expensive Christmas gift he bought the secretary, she realizes her entire marriage has been a sham. This storyline is linked to that of Hugh Grant's character, because Thompson's character plays his sister. Grant, who plays the British Prime Minister, gets a couple of the biggest scenes of the movie. One occurs when he stands up to the bullying U.S. President, played by Billy Bob Thornton. The second happens when he goes on a sweetly funny search through a working-class neighborhood to find the member of his household staff with whom he has fallen in love.

The mournful side of love and loss comes to the forefront when Daniel (Liam Neeson) tries to help his son get over the loss of his mother by helping him get the attention of the girl he likes at school. Another sadder story features Laura Linney as Sarah, a working woman whose dream relationship is interrupted by the demands of her mentally ill brother. Heartbreakingly, Sarah chooses her love for her brother over the opportunities to seek romance for herself.

Two sweet and funny minor storylines wrap up the movie. One features Martin Freeman and Joanna Page as porn-movie body doubles who develop a shy relationship. The other centers on Kris Marshall as a working-class Brit convinced that his British accent will get him unlimited sex if he can just get to America.

Most romance films ask the viewer to become invested in one relationship, or two at the most, and try to take their audiences deep into that story. Because "Love Actually" takes the viewer through almost a dozen stories of love and romance at the same time, it allows a fuller experience of all the facets of being in love, from disappointment to joy to silliness. Some of the storylines dive straight into wish-fulfillment fantasy, most notably Marshall's trip to America and the working-class romance of Grant's sexy Prime Minister. However, the darker story in which Linney chooses to help her brother and the real pain we see in Thompson as she realizes her husband is unfaithful ground the movie in a sense of emotional reality.

The acting is absolutely top-notch, without a missed beat or inauthentic moment across the entire enormous cast. Thompson and Lincoln stand out for their understated performances, demonstrating how it is possible to go forward with life despite devastating emotional losses. Grant brings all his much-vaunted charm to the screen as Prime Minister. However, it's Nighy who steals the show as the aging rocker Billy Mack. His performance ties together brutal honesty with a level of desperation that leaves audience members howling with laughter even as they squirm a bit uncomfortably with self-recognition.

Curtis's directing is deft and emotionally true, an unexpected achievement when dealing with a story so filled with whimsy and holiday joy. Curtis was already known as the screenwriter of such romantic hits as "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "Notting Hill" before he stepped behind the camera for his directorial debut with "Love Actually," a movie that immediately made him a romantic comedy director to be reckoned with. The movie also serves as a love letter to the city of London, shot on location at some of the city's most picturesque and recognizable sites.

"Love Actually" could easily have been a saccharine movie filled with one happy ending after another and little to no emotional truth. Instead, it shows the audience truthful relationships that are all on the brink of never happening in the first place or falling apart, and it makes clear that true love does not always win through. These truths just make the experience of "Love Actually" all the more grounded and joyous, a movie that truly deserves to be watched Christmas after Christmas.