Dir. Richard Curtis
(2003, R, 129 min)
★ ★ ★ ★

Here’s why I love Love Actually: it’s not perfect, but in its occasionally awkward, occasionally sitcomish, rough-around-the-edges way, it’s poetic. Ranked among my top twenty films of the last decade, it opens with a thesis so optimistic it’s square: that in the midst of post-9/11 anxiety is an undercurrent of love, seen at airports in arrivals and departures, reunions and separations, hugs and kisses. Love, it says plainly, is all around. You don’t even have to look very hard to find it.

The stories that follow are the supporting evidence offered by Richard Curtis, who had written many screenplays about love but until this film had never directed one, and he explores the subject using what he knows: the tropes of romantic comedies. There’s some screwball (Colin Firth as an English author crossing a language barrier with his Portuguese housekeeper), some melodrama (Andrew Lincoln pines for Keira Knightley, who is married to his best friend), and some heartbreak (Laura Linney misses her chance at love to care for her mentally ill brother). Hugh Grant shows up, completely and utterly miscast as a newly elected Prime Minister, but that’s part of the charm; if the world were a British romantic comedy, of course Hugh Grant would be Prime Minister. (We can overlook, for the purposes of this review, the brief, misguided stab at political commentary when Billy Bob Thornton arrives as an imperious, womanizing President of the United States.)

Prime Minister Hugh Grant

There are creative touches that are just right and shots that are about perfect. Consider the upbeat interactions between Liam Neeson and Thomas Sangster as stepfather and son devising ways for the youngster to win the love of his life; this, Curtis shows us bittersweetly, is how they finally are able to connect after the death of the boy’s mother. Later, in another storyline, is perhaps the film’s single best shot: of Emma Thompson, listening to Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” as she makes a devastating discovery about her marriage.

This is the hyperlink rom-com that spawned the likes of He’s Just Not That Into You and Valentine’s Day, for which Curtis perhaps owes us penance, but it establishes relationships between storylines with a sense of purpose few films of this kind have. The star of one story may play a bit part in another as friend, co-worker, stranger, sibling, or neighbor; Curtis is making a point about connectedness, that all of us, at any given moment, are a network of love stories. That and not anything else, he posits, is what we were revealed to have in common on 9/11.

A thread running through all the stories, in the foreground or on television screens or radio broadcasts in the background, is the sublime adventure of Billy Mack, played by Bill Nighy with unmitigated naughty delight. Billy is a faded rock star hoping for a comeback with a hackneyed Christmas cover of one of his old hits (“… and particularly enjoy the incredible crassness of the moment when we try to squeeze an extra syllable into the fourth line”). It’s funny and heartening how he continually reappears as a reaffirmation of sorts, as when his live TV performance distracts airport employees just in time for young Sangster to say goodbye to his true love right before she boards a plane for New York. It’s as if he’s in on it, the sneaky devil. His Christmas single is a naked attempt at cultural relevance in a teeny-bopper music landscape — his unapologetic candor about this provides the film’s biggest laughs — and it stands in, speaks for, and reinforces everyone in earshot, all looking in one way or another for comebacks of their own.

It doesn’t all work. A home-wrecking harlot is written and directed to be so shameless it’s a wonder her clothes don’t fall off in the middle of scenes (actually, sometimes they do). And Curtis is overly reliant on pop songs when he should more often emphasize, as he does in the ebullient climax, Craig Armstrong’s terrific score. This is not a film, admittedly, whose effect is the result of strict aesthetic discipline, but of the full-throated sincerity of its making, of the balance and diversity of its tones, which alternate between frothy and fraught and combine into an ultimate affirmation about love in the world: actually, it is all around.