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Great Parts, Lesser Whole 

A few years ago my UNO Privateers went to the men's NCAA basketball tournament, and I was ecstatic, even when we drew the vaunted North Carolina Tar Heels in the first round. UNO got off to a great start and had a first-half lead that approached 20 points. But then gradually the Tar Heels clawed their way back into the game, and eventually the Privateers were beaten. I was bummed by the defeat, but that doesn't mean I don't have excited memories of those moments when our shots were dropping and we had a storied program on the run. I feel much the same way about writer-director Richard Curtis' multi-character romantic comedy Love Actually. The picture gets off to a terrific start and sustains its pleasure for more than an hour and a half before stumbling badly in an overblown end. The whole doesn't work, but I remember large parts of it with considerable admiration.

Love Actually is an ensemble affair reminiscent of Curtis' script for Four Weddings and a Funeral (he also wrote Bridget Jones's Diary, Notting Hill and The Tall Guy. The sweet theme is that despite our base nature and inescapable selfishness, people actually love each other and are willing to sacrifice and stand up for each other. It's the British Christmas season, and as we progress toward the school pageants and office parties of the holidays, a diverse array of characters take the risk of love. The recently elected prime minister (Hugh Grant) lacks romantic confidence, but Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), his potty-mouth new assistant at 10 Downing St., catches his eye. Will he have the courage to get involved with her?

The prime minister's sister, Karen (Emma Thompson), is married to newspaper editor Harry (Alan Rickman). They have a warm and contented life, and Harry wants to play Cupid for ace reporter Sarah (Laura Linney) and chief designer Karl (Rodrigo Santoro). He knows they are attracted to each other, but neither is willing to make the first move. Harry's new secretary, Mia (Heike Makatsch), is willing to make the first 50 moves if necessary. She makes suggestive remarks while spreading her legs in a most unladylike fashion. Will Harry have the good sense to pass on what Mia is so aggressively offering, or will he risk everything he values to taste the forbidden? Karen, meanwhile, would never seem the type to stray. But she's clearly attracted to her distraught friend Daniel (Liam Neeson), who has just buried a wife he practically worshiped.

Elsewhere in London, a young couple meet on the set of a movie where they've been hired as stand-ins. They take the place of the actors they vaguely resemble and go through the physical actions of each scene so that the cinematographer can decide on his camera placements. As it happens, the movie has a number of sex scenes, so these strangers nervously get to know each other as they intertwine their bodies and bare their skin so that technicians can get proper light meter readings. This story line doesn't go any place special, but it produces a lot of funny moments.

Mystery writer Jamie (Colin Firth) gets dumped by his girlfriend, who has been sleeping with his brother. In dismay, he retreats to the south of France to work on a new book and quickly becomes smitten by Aurelia (Lucia Moniz), his Portuguese housekeeper. The problem is that neither can speak the other's language, the point being that when it comes to love, gestures are more important than words.

Unquestionably the highlight of these several vignettes is the one involving aging rocker Billy Mack (Bill Nighy), who is making a comeback with a cheesy Christmas record. Billy is like a pungent cross between Keith Richards and the droll-but-drunken Peter O'Toole character from My Favorite Year. His strategy for promoting his own record is to denounce it as trash. Billy has lived a life of pampered self-indulgence and brashly admits he loves no one but himself. That's what makes a surprising Christmas gesture all the more effective.

The cross-cutting crescendo of the climax, with its overbearing music nudging us to feel emotions the picture hasn't quite earned, diminishes what has gone before. We are less invested in Jamie's involvement with Aurelia than the film desires and less still with Daniel's young son's infatuation with the most popular girl in his school. Even the casting of the youngsters seems awry since the girl seems about five years older than the boy.

But in the earlier going the picture has erected some sustaining passages. The most powerful are those where the romances don't work out. Some people fail the ones they love. Others make hard choices that lead them to turn away from desired romantic opportunities. And the acting is memorably fine. Nighy is a hoot. Grant reveals once again that his charm has genuine staying power. And in their separate examples of grief and courage, Neeson and Thompson stir us to the core.

click to enlarge The British prime minister (Hugh Grant) and his - personal assistant, Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), - are caught by the public in a very personal moment - in the romantic comedy Love Actually.
  • The British prime minister (Hugh Grant) and his personal assistant, Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), are caught by the public in a very personal moment in the romantic comedy Love Actually.
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