The goal of any romantic comedy is to successfully argue that two characters make the universe a better place by realizing their destiny to be together. It is a daunting goal, more commonly missed than reached. Richard Curtis’s Love, Actually is even more ambitious than its generic brethren, attempting to maneuver ten couples into happily (or tolerably) ever after in a little over two hours. Needless to say, the results are somewhat mixed.
To the film’s eternal credit, the couples are not all romantic. The film is easily at its best when dealing with these platonic pairings. Then, of course, there are the more traditional romances, each of which is at least moderately entertaining and ably acted, but there are only so many times you can see the same story, and there are only so many ways you can tell it. However, even among the blandest of interludes there’s a spark of originality that demonstrates just how well Curtis has chosen his cast and written their words. His most delicate touch is reserved for the tale of the groom (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the bride (Kiera Knightly), and the best man (Andrew Lincoln). Gradually revealing the depth and object of the best man’s affections, Curtis remembers that, no matter how attractive Knightly is, Lincoln is the groom’s best friend — not something lightly thrown away.
That kind of insight permeates Curtis’s four most interesting, affecting storylines. Billy Bob Thornton’s American President is present only to serve as the catalyst of the political and romantic awakening of Hugh Grant’s newly elected Prime Minister, but he creates the character so fully that his appearance single-handedly moves Curtis’s frothy construction into harder-edged territory. Thornton sits so still, coiled in his power, that when he eyes Grant with all the interest a snake shows a bird, he is genuinely frightening. Just as Grant’s character responds by showing unexpected backbone, Grant himself freezes, and then shows us a plausible politician instead of a rumpled boy.
Also sporting hidden depths is Bill Nighy’s scene stealing Billy Mac, an aging rock star who’s remade a bad song into a worse one in hopes of scoring a Christmas hit. He not only has the best lines in this movie, he has so many, and they are so good, that it’s possible he’s filched some other film’s rightful share of good dialogue. The resolution of his story is the most satisfying in the movie, because it is unexpected and right.
What gives the film some depth, however, is its acknowledgement that love has at least as many failures as successes: not everyone gets a happy ending. Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, and Laura Linney get to tell these adult stories in a movie filled with children, and in doing so demonstrate once again that they are three of our best actors. Linney plays a woman who dreams about a co-worker and cares for her institutionalized brother. Linney’s interactions with her brother have a kind of stoic, unflappable tenderness that is truly heartbreaking, while her scenes with Rickman’s grumpy, playful boss resemble the sibling style bickering she’ll never have with her real brother. Rickman is a wonderful boss, and a pretty decent husband too. But he does buy that necklace for his flirtatious secretary. And he breaks his wife’s heart, without meaning to. The comedy of Rickman’s attempted purchase (Rickman, faced with an incompetent clerk, silently expresses irritation, hopelessness, and homicidal intent) quickly fades when Thompson confronts him with — well, she doesn’t actually know what. And that’s the source of her pain, that she doesn’t know what he’s done, and can never be sure, and it will always hurt. Love, actually, has inspired ruin and glory in about equal measure.