"Love Actually" is terminally precious. Chirpy "classic" pop songs populate every third scene. It has no structure, just a jumble of interconnected stories -- some little dramas, some little comedies -- about love, flirtation, courtship and heartbreak, all of which will pay off just in time for a lovely London Christmas.
It's the kind of pandering, populist movie in which Hugh Grant, playing the prime minister of England, joyously shakes his booty to The Pointer Sisters' "Jump (For My Love)" until he suddenly, to his great embarrassment, realizes he's being watched. It offers no real surprises except in how and when it reveals the inevitable six degrees of separation between each anecdotal yarn -- none of which has enough substance to ever stand on its own (nor would you want them to!).
And yet, you'd have to be a terrible grump to not like "Love Actually" at least a little.
Written and directed by Richard Curtis -- the driving force behind "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Notting Hill" and "Bridget Jones's Diary" -- some of the movie's innocuous but maddeningly endearing tales are sweetly clever: One follows a miserable novelist and victim of infidelity (Colin Firth) to France, where through subtitles we come to realize that he and his Portuguese housekeeper (Lucia Moniz) understand each other better than they think as their falling in love is frustrated by lack of a common language.
Others angle for poignant comedy: A new widower (Liam Neeson) coaches his overly articulate young stepson (Thomas Sangster) through his first crush. Meanwhile the best man from a first-reel wedding (Andrew Lincoln) secretly pines for his best friend's new bride (Keira Knightly).
One mini-plot is a stand-up-and-cheer Cinderella story about that fumblingly charming, unmarried new PM (Grant) who falls for the bright-eyed girl (Martine McCutcheon) who brings him his tea. He also becomes a national hero by publicly humiliating a smarmy US president (Billy Bob Thornton) who is half Clinton (he makes a pass at the girl) and half Bush (he's an arrogant international bully). Neither actor has the slightest bit of credibility as a politician, but they're entertaining nonetheless.
Some stories are tinged with tribulation (a stale but loving marriage is shaken by a provocative younger woman) and some are thin and played strictly for guffaws (a pathetic pick-up artist moves to America to score with ditzy blonde sexpots he hopes are suckers for an English accent).
But while all 10 crisscrossing narratives have lots of heart and vivid performances (the cast also includes Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson and Laura Linney), all of them are transparent (if the tea girl tells the PM where she lives in the first act, where do you think he'll rush to against his better judgment in the last?) and many have plot holes that are hard to overlook (can't Curtis keep a handful of 15-minute stories coherent?). But all of these problems, which would surely sink any of these vignettes had they stood alone, become easy to forgive because the movie as a whole is so genuinely warm and winning.
"Love Actually" is actually nothing more than a fluffy, synthetically holiday-themed two-plus hours of fairytales for grown-ups (the story of two movie stand-ins chatting their way into mutual adoration while doubling for a sex scene is one of the reasons for the "R" rating). But while it doesn't aim high enough to appeal to the mind, it does uses your heart for target practice and consistently hits its mark with Cupid-like precision.