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Love Actually

Perhaps we simply should accept the fact that the Brits deliver better rom-coms than their American cousins. Where Hollywood often prefers to create mismatched couples with tangential romantic chemistry with an entirely predictable happy ending, British sensibilities tend to examine not only the sheer rush of love, but also its ill-starred qualities — the awkwardness, the anxieties, and the pain that are love's obverse realities. And writer-producer Richard Curtis should know something about it, having penned The Tall Guy, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Notting Hill. With 2003's Love Actually, he steps behind the camera for the first time, and (as would be expected) handles a rambling script and sizable cast with a light, hypnotic touch. Curtis's modest epic concerns not one romance, but several; enough in fact to need a scorecard. Great Britain's new bachelor prime minister (Hugh Grant) attempts to institute the policies of his new government, but he finds himself smitten with his caterer Natalie (Martine McCutcheon). The prime minister's sister Karen (Emma Thompson) is married to businessman Harry (Alan Rickman), who has started a reckless affair with his sultry assistant Mia (Heike Makatsch). Karen's friend Daniel (Liam Neeson) has just become a widower left in charge of his lovesick stepson Sam (Thomas Sangster). In Harry's office, lonely-heart Sarah (Laura Linney) nurses a poorly hidden crush on co-worker Karl (Rodrigo Santoro). Meanwhile, novelist Jamie (Colin Firth) breaks up with his girlfriend and rents a cottage in France, where he becomes enamored of his Portuguese housekeeper Aurelia (Lucia Moniz). Newlyweds Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Juliet (Keira Knightly) plan a new life together, but Peter's friend Mark (Andrew Lincoln) is oddly jealous of the couple. And in the midst of it all, a pair of stand-ins on a movie set (Martin Freeman, Joanna Page) strike up a shy relationship while posing for camera setups in various stages of undress, English lad Colin (Kris Marshall) strikes out for Wisconsin, certain that his accent will fetch hot American birds, and aging pop-star Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) will sink to the tackiest depths imaginable to have his horrible holiday record number-one on the charts come Christmas Day.

Despite clocking in at just over two hours, the only complaint one can lodge against Love Actually is that there isn't enough of it — with so many characters to follow, each individual story only gets twenty minutes of screen-time (at best), and it's not hard to believe that Curtis could have delivered his original 3:30 cut to DVD with little complaint. However, the tight editing means that the movie never lags — with each jump from one vignette to the next, one gets the sense of enjoying a marvelous buffet rather than a seven-course meal. Hugh Grant carries the film's greatest star appeal, and he does not disappoint with his role as the lovestruck prime minister; he will not win any new fans, but he proves why he's been a successful genre player for so long. Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, and Alan Rickman round out the male leads, each bringing their strengths to the ensemble piece, while Emma Thomson, Laura Linney, and Keira Knightly offer portraits of women at different stages in their life. Don't ask Love Actually to completely avoid cliché: After all, it does end at the airport, with many of the stories arriving at happy resolutions. But if the journey is the thing, Curtis's charming film isn't just about happy endings, but about how much personal risk and cost happiness can require. As the young Sam says to his father before he plans to win the heart of his girl, "Let's go get our asses kicked by love." Even at 11 years old, he knows that's part of what love actually is.

*          *          *

Universal's DVD release features a good anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Supplements include 30 minutes of deleted material with introductions from writer-director Curtis — one can only hope that there will sufficient interest for Universal to release a director's cut DVD in the future. Also on board are a commentary from Curtis and stars Grant, Nighy, and Sangster, a look at the film's music, a Kelly Clarkston music video, and DVD-ROM content. Keep-case.

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