As Love Actually begins we are told that perhaps the world isn't such a dire and hateful place that "love actually is all around." Around London anyway. The film explores no less than seven different romantic scenarios within the bustling British capital--all of which interconnect and eventually resolve on Christmas Eve. There's the newly elected dashing Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) who is smitten with his secretary the earthy Natalie (Martine McCutcheon); Karen (Emma Thompson) whose husband Harry (Alan Rickman) has strayed with his seductive secretary Mia (Heike Makatsch); Sarah (Laura Linney) the American wallflower who has a crush on her colleague Carl (Rodrigo Santoro); Jamie (Colin Firth) who falls for his pretty Portuguese housekeeper Aurelia (Lucia Moniz)…there are lots more but you get the gist. As love goes things may not get tied up neatly in brightly colored packages for everyone but there's still enough good cheer to spread around.
Showcasing some of Britain's finest actors Love Actually doesn't have a bad banana in the bunch. Floppy-haired Hugh Grant turns in an endearing performance and proves there isn't a romantic comedy he can't handle. He has an uncanny knack for connecting with any actress he happens to be romancing; in this case it's the adorable McCutcheon best known for the hit British TV drama EastEnders. Rickman and Thompson are quite good as the couple whose long-term marriage is beginning to crack; Thompson especially does a nice job trying to hide her pain while being a happy mom. Linney too shines as Sarah who glows with excitement when she finally gets what she so ardently wished for. Veteran stage and film actor Bill Nighy (Underworld) however steals the show as a carefree aging rock star desperate for a comeback. His Billy Mack smacks of Mick Jagger Keith Richards and Rod Stewart all rolled into one.
"I'm worried that we don't have the word 'massacre' in the title " writer/director Richard Curtis fretted to Entertainment Weekly referring to how horror-loving American audiences might not take to his new romantic comedy that is already a huge hit in Britain. True perhaps a romantic comedy starring a multitude of A-list British actors might not bring in the required masses. But who cares about the money (did I just say that)? Curtis who has written some of the best romantic comedies of the last decade including Four Weddings and a Funeral Notting Hill and Bridget Jones' Diary steps behind the camera for the first time here and is able to give each story a unique point of view from the lovesick to the wacky. There actually may be too many stories in Love Actually but it's a small gaffe. Love Actually is a refreshing good old fashioned warm and gushy movie that takes your mind off the bad things for the holiday season and Curtis should feel confident about his directing debut.
It's 1918 in Munich and Germany has just suffered the humiliating defeat of the Great War. Max Rothman (John Cusack) a once-promising artist has returned from the war minus an arm and unable to paint. But he is a wealthy man one of vision and generous spirit and he opens what becomes a successful gallery in the hopes of furthering the talents of others and exploring emerging trends in art. His personal life in a cultured and assimilated Jewish family is less settled as he juggles responsibilities as husband father and son and indulges in the pleasures of Liselore his mistress. At one of his gallery openings Max meets the young Adolph Hitler (Noah Taylor) also a war vet and painter. But Hitler as artist is frustrated and unrecognized; he's a bitter and destitute loner without friends family or money. In other words he's ready to blame his failures and misery on others so why not the Jews? In spite of their differences Hitler and Rothman grow friendlier if not friendly. Rothman's artistic tastes veer toward the avant-garde and Hitler's toward traditionalism but they share common views about the recent war. Rothman is game so he takes Hitler's work on consignment. But while appreciating Hitler's sketches he ultimately rejects the work. Falling under the influence of an anti-Semitic army captain Hitler learns he's skilled at oratory. Instinctively knowing how to play to a crowd and tapping into his own fury he wins over an audience of anti-Semites with anti-Jewish rhetoric at a beer hall meeting. Having experienced both rejection and acceptance Hitler pursues an obvious course.
John Cusack is terrific as the wealthy Jewish gallery owner who befriends struggling artist Adolph Hitler. Noah Taylor as Hitler however delivers an overwrought performance that veers upon caricature striking some false notes. Not that Australian actor Taylor had an easy job of delivering the young Fuhrer but he plays the part too forced too mannered too theatrical. The role is thankless but surely some actor perhaps in the hands of another director might have delivered the goods. Other performances are fine including Leelee Sobieski as Max's mistress and vet actress Janet Suzman as his mother.
Writer-director Menno Meyjes who adapted The Color Purple for Steven Spielberg makes his directorial debut here. While Meyjes coaxes more than serviceable performances from his actors especially Cusack other decisions no doubt made by the filmmaker are questionable. Production values are solid but some aesthetic choices fall short especially the film's highly stylized sets that are more otherworldly than 1918 Munich. Meyjes gives us apocryphal sets like the artists' vast loft that is more 21st than 20th century that distance us from rather than immerse us in an interesting story suggested by history. Meyjes deserves much credit for daring to explore the psychology and circumstances that might have contributed to his pathology evil and power over the masses.
Jesse James (Colin Farrell) his brother Frank (Gabriel Macht) and his cousins Bob (Will McCormack) and Cole Younger (Scott Caan) come back to their farms in Missouri after fighting for the South in the Civil War. Yet when they return they find a corrupt railroad baron Thaddeus Rains (Harris Yulin) has captured the deeds to their homes to build his railroad. When Rains uses unnecessary force to get them off the land James and his comrades set out to ruin Rains and his plans and seek the ultimate revenge. They become the infamous James-Younger gang led by the charismatic James who rob banks and blow up railways. As Rains and his henchman Pinkerton (Timothy Dalton) launch the biggest manhunt of the Old West James starts to lose interest in the gang's activities as a rivalry between he and Cole springs up and as he falls in love with the beautiful Zee Mimms (Ali Larter). But can James escape justice?
Irish-born Farrell has certainly been making a name for himself especially with his buzzed-about performance in last year's indie fave Tigerland. Unfortunately he chose to make this film rather than something a little more challenging. He does a nice job playing the legendary outlaw--and he looks pretty damn good doing it--but the part doesn't require much. However all the boys including Macht as Frank James Caan as Cole Younger and McCormack as Bob Younger actually join Farrell in trying to flesh out real characters rather than cardboard cutouts--and nearly succeed. The camaraderie between them may have been carried off-screen as well. However the rest of the cast doesn't necessarily follow suit. Dalton is dull as Pinkerton with an unrecognizable accent and Larter really doesn't have a clue what she's doing although next to Farrell she looks fetching. Anyone would.
The main problem with the film once again didn't have much to do with the acting--but everything to do with the terribly clichéd script. All the great acting in the world can't help trite dialogue and predictable plot lines. And these young actors certainly can't rise above the material. When Mama James (played by the completely wasted Kathy Bates) prays her son comments "her talking to the Lord is not what worries me it's that He talks back." Clever very clever. Face it the western genre is a dying breed. Anyone remember the really bad 1990 Young Guns? The Academy Award-winning Unforgiven may have been the last great and original Western to come out of Hollywood. Or maybe they finally need to put the Jesse James story to rest. Sure the infamous character makes a compelling antihero but it's been given the big-screen treatment too many times to count. It's time to give it up.
Supermom Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her geneticist husband Norman (Harrison Ford) are adapting to their only daughter's departure to college when Claire begins sensing an unearthly presence in the couple's lakeside Vermont dream home. Is she losing her marbles or is that the spirit of a beautiful young woman she keeps glimpsing? To say any more (as the too-explicit ad campaign does) would spoil some delicious twists.
The toplining Ford is his usual solid self in a role that plays cleverly on his familiar persona but the picture is Pfeiffer's from beginning to end. She delivers one of her most pleasing performances nicely disarming audience doubts about the story's supernatural elements with some judicious eye-rolling and embarrassed frowning -- her character is so painfully aware that what she's saying sounds crazy how can we possibly doubt her? Among the low-key supporting cast Joe Morton ("Terminator 2") stands out as an amiably down-to-earth psychiatrist.
Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump") takes Clark Gregg's highly derivative haunted house script and pours on the Hitchcockian visual flourishes unapologetically pilfering from the Master's "Rear Window" and "Psycho " among others. His extended homage results in scene after scene of almost unbearable tension as the audience waits for the next shock. There's some clunky storytelling in the first section but the all-suspense second half more than makes up for it with some classic work including what seems destined to go down in movie history as "the bathtub scene."