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Photograph by Peter Mountain

The Tony Blair Switch Project: Hugh Grant plays a British prime minister with a crush on Martine McCutcheon in 'Love Actually.'

Love, British Style

Fifteen (or so) characters in search of a plot

By Richard von Busack

THE OLD TV SHOW Love American Style has risen from the grave. And like Dracula, it's gone to find some English real estate. Love Actually is short for "Love Actually Is All Around Us." Director Richard Curtis, who wrote the script for Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, follows a gang of lovelorn people in the Altman style. As Curtis frequently creates annuities for Hugh Grant, it's no surprise Grant shows up, playing a lonely prime minister with a crush on his tea girl (Martine McCutcheon). Grant's success is as a gently snarky British-lite character, portraying men who could have been born between the United States and the United Kingdom--in the middle of the Atlantic. So he embodies what Love Actually is trying to achieve.

The far more British Bill Nighy has all the best lines. Nighy, of the similar but superior English layers-of-love picture Lawless Hearts, plays a desiccated rock star called Billy Mack. Mack hopes to revive his career with a piece of "golden crap": a Christmas hit. Because he's a brutally honest boor on television--like the deathless Oliver Reed--he becomes a national sensation. Nighy is offscreen too much, while Love Actually cuts to one of its sub-subplots involving Keira Knightly (inert) as a best-friend's wife; Liam Neeson as a widower; and Colin Firth as a once-burned writer smitten with his Portuguese cleaning woman. There is a relatively adult episode about a pair of near-nameless nude stand-ins for a porn film who begin a shy affair on the set.

You can count on Laura Linney, but probably the best acting is by the team of Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson, a couple caught in a strained marriage. Rickman is being seduced by a lady at his office; she's the scarlet-lipped Heike Makatsch, from Aimée & Jaguar. Isn't she far too intense for the role of "other woman"--wouldn't a married man who'd seen Fatal Attraction size her up as a bunny boiler?

The film's open and closing sequences take place at the airport, where we see digital-video embraces for travelers coming and going--proof that "love actually is all around us." If only Billy Mack was there to say bollocks to that. At the airport, there are also weary passengers crossed by delay and entrapment, and minimum-wage slaves sweeping up the joint. Curtis' feel-good message wouldn't be as open to critique if one of the zillion subplots was about Grant's prime minister standing up to the U.S. president (Billy Bob Thornton) for the good name of Britain. This is understandable wish-fulfillment, since in real life Blair did what Bush told him to do.

It's hard not to judge Love Actually as "golden crap" made for the Yank export market, with charm bought at the expense of portraying London as a shopping mall (the way New York's usually portrayed, but two wrongs don't make a right). There are sweet moments studded throughout, and the actors often carry the day with craft (Rowan Atkinson is a monument to obsequiousness in his short bit as a Harrod's clerk), but Curtis takes the cool out of London. He shows dismaying signs of becoming one of those directors who could make TV commercials that tear your heart out.

Love Actually (R; 128 min.), directed and written by Richard Curtis, photographed by Michael Coulter and starring Hugh Grant, Bill Nighy and Emma Thompson, plays at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the November 13-19, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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