'Love Actually' tries hard to charm us

It is a truth universally acknowledged that we do not fall in love with the ones who want us to love them, but with the ones who are slyly eyeing us from across the room. And this, dear readers, is the problem at the heart of "Love Actually," a movie that holds out its arms and begs us to come running for a hug, when a shy smile and a slightly naughty twinkle would be so much more effective.

Not that anything about "Love Actually" is off-putting; it's all perfectly charming. Hugh Grant, for example, is the prime minister of Great Britain (never mind that in the United States, the hair alone would keep him out of public office). He's in love, in a bumbling, pre-"Bridget-Jones" sort of way, with the winsome lass (Martine McCutcheon) who brings him his tea. This is, however, only one tiny subplot in a movie crammed to bursting with stories of plummy-voiced Brits coping with the vagaries of love.

Richard Curtis, screenwriter of "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Notting Hill," and "Bridget Jones' Diary," makes his directing debut with this holiday bonbon. He's cranked his trademark charm up several notches, resulting in a movie so extra-lovable that it features a massive choir singing "All You Need Is Love," Grant shaking his pinstriped booty to a Pointer Sisters tune and Colin Firth in a nubby turtleneck. (That last bit is, I know, enough to make all of you "Pride and Prejudice" fans stampede for the multiplexes. It is, for the record, the sweater equivalent of a heathery tweed jacket, and he drinks lots of tea while wearing it. Have a nice time.)

Movie review

"Love Actually," with Alan Rickman, Bill Nighy, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Laura Linney, Liam Neeson, Martine McCutcheon. Written and directed by Richard Curtis. 128 minutes. Rated R for sexuality, nudity and language. Several theaters.

Fashion statements aside, "Love Actually" suffers from an embarrassment of riches. The very well-connected Curtis has enlisted some of the biggest names in British cinema for this film, which also includes Emma Thompson (who hasn't made a movie in years), Alan Rickman, Irish actor Liam Neeson, and current It Girl Keira Knightley (of "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Bend It Like Beckham").

Also on hand is Laura Linney, trapped in a miserable subplot about a woman who can't make room for love because of family obligations. And Rowan Atkinson, in a too-brief cameo as a fussy clerk. And ... well, a person gets worn out just thinking about all the story lines here. If only somebody, preferably Hugh Grant, would bring me a cup of tea.

Suffice to say that it all takes place around Christmastime, and that the stories are wildly uneven; several could easily have been lopped off, others cry out for more time.

Curtis' premise is charming — an initial voice-over reminds us that "love actually is all around," with the sleighful of stories meant to illustrate love in all of its diversity. But "Love Actually" doesn't demonstrate much diversity (everyone's heterosexual, well-spoken and picturesque) and seems oddly focused on employer/underling relationships, with handsome middle-aged men casting eyes on their pretty employees.

Thompson and Rickman, as a long-married couple facing a crisis (involving, natch, his secretary), have the most poignant story; not so much because of the way it's written, but because of the sincerity they bring to it. Rickman has a perfect dryness to his lines; he's perplexed by his assistant's flirtatiousness; Thompson has a scene of quiet realization that's devastating.

Other subplots are (mostly) lighter. Bill Nighy is marvelously funny as an aging rock musician who's shamelessly recorded a vile Christmas tune in order to rake in some money; he's a desiccated, twitchy fellow with a cheerful awareness of his own awfulness.

It's no hardship whatsoever to sit through "Love Actually," and some of its scenes are as good as anything on the romantic-comedy scene today. (Just try to resist the Grant plot, which uses his clipped, breezy charm to perfect effect.) But if Curtis could have sharpened his focus, and trusted his actors a bit more (rather than constantly drowning them out with treacly pop music), "Love Actually" could have been splendid. Love, it turns out, isn't quite all you need.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com