Love Actually, yet another Richard Curtis movie about shy Brits rowing strenuously toward a positive outcome, is the most shamelessly calculating bit of fluff I’ve seen since Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary — all of which Curtis wrote or co-wrote, and almost all of which I could kick myself for enjoying as much as I did. Let it be said that I drew the line at Notting Hill, a cloying piece of dreck in which that quintessential anonymous Everyman, Hugh Grant, got to shack up with Julia Roberts.
Love Actually is rather lazily knocked off from Notting Hill, though this time Grant plays the star, a Blair-alike prime minister who falls for an ample, foul-mouthed secretary (played with proletarian gumption by Martine McCutcheon) at Number 10. But it is far and away the more winning movie, and it comes by its unrelenting schmaltz more or less honestly. If you’re going to have your emotional responses shunted around like a gear stick, it might as well be by someone who writes dialogue as funny as Curtis does, and who, in his first outing as a director, brings Oxbridge panache and unquenchable sincerity to what is essentially a souped-up situation comedy.
Slickly framed by the run-up to a London Christmas, storyboarded within an inch of its life and snappily edited to rein in a plethora of subplots, Love Actually reaches out to the hapless soul within all of us who can’t connect, or insists on loving the one we can’t have, or lusts after the hard-bodied secretary, or lacks the courage to declare ourselves. Though the movie is billed as a vehicle for Grant, in fact the actor only shows up every 20 minutes or so to do his usual embarrassed shuffle and stutter, and run his fingers through his hair. (Why he keeps doing this tired shtick when, given a bit of remorseless villainy to work with — Restoration, An Awfully Big Adventure — the man can actually act is a mystery, or would be if he didn’t bring home the box-office bacon every time.) For the rest, a vast ensemble of characters played by big-deal British stars, sprinkled with talented character actors and a few Yanks for import-export purposes, run around bumping into each other as they make the usual hashes of their love lives. The movie is littered with sensitive males, among them Liam Neeson as an inconsolable widower trying to advise his lovelorn stepson; the infallible Alan Rickman as an excruciatingly ill-at-ease executive chafing under his comfortable marriage; and followers of Colin Firth’s torso will be ecstatic to hear that the dishy actor, as a diffident mystery writer with a radar for the wrong woman, once again dives shirtless into a pond. There are some ineffably funny moments, most of them provided by Bill Nighy as a drug-addled, aging rock star trying to make a comeback with the gooey ’60s hit “Love Is All Around,” and Curtis’ longtime collaborator Rowan Atkinson as a department-store salesman with an irregular attitude toward gift-wrap.
Still, for a romantic comedy, Love Actually is a pretty good anatomy of loneliness and grief, whether it’s that of Emma Thompson, striving in vain for dowdiness as Rickman’s stay-at-home wife, who’s trying to cope with the fact that her clueless husband has just bought his nubile secretary a pricey necklace, or of Laura Linney as a tweedy office employee pining for a handsome colleague even as she fields impossible family commitments. True, the director makes sure in almost every case that everything comes up roses. Movies like Love Actually are often made by jaded cynics preying on our shallowest feelings. One senses that Curtis is not a cynic but a congenital optimist who believes that, notwithstanding the evening news, love really is all around — or at least lurking by the arrivals gate at Heathrow airport. Love Actually is often banal, but it is not false, and even its willfully sunny creator will allow that love doesn’t conquer all. The truest, most affecting scenes come late in the movie, and they have nothing to do with resolution, and everything to do with renunciation.
In Elf, a tale of the triumph of insane goodness over negligible evil, Will Ferrell plays an oversize elf looking for his long-lost papa in the fleshpots of Manhattan. So pure of heart is Buddy that there are moments when you want to kill him, but on the whole he’s an affable, if strangely dressed fellow whose mission, did he but know it, is to restore the spirit of Christmas to the heedless hellhole that is New York City. This rather goes against the Zeitgeist, which since September 11 has retooled Manhattan into a paragon of fortitude and fraternal solidarity. Still, why quibble with the adjusted reality of Parental Guidance — which requires a clear division between good and evil — especially when it comes in a package as charmingly irreverent as Elf?
Our story begins in a spiffed-up North Pole, where an orphaned baby is being raised by a laconic Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) with occasional assistance from a gruff Santa (Ed Asner). When Buddy grows into a 6-foot-3-inch giant too clumsy for the toy-making detail, Papa Elf must explain to the boy that he is, in fact, a human. Eager to find his place in the world, the lad treks blithely across cartoon America, on foot, to seek out the deadbeat dad who abandoned his mother before he was born. In New York, it seems that Buddy has exchanged one outsider status for another: The Big Apple turns out to be full of worms, not the least of which is Buddy’s father, Walter (James Caan, straight of face), a children’s-book publisher much given to cutting corners in the service of the bottom line. Once convinced that Buddy is not a singing telegram, Walter still won’t give him the time of day, even though his wife (Mary Steenburgen, the world’s most childlike actress over 50) embraces the erstwhile elf as part of the family. No prizes for guessing who’s the real prodigal son in this family.
At first blush Elf may seem a stretch for director Jon Favreau, but in fact it is all of a piece with Made and Swingers, both of which are about overgrown kids adrift in big cities. If anything the movie is a departure for distributor New Line, whose 2003 releases boast the shock doc The Real Cancún and the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Elf is not just a kids’ story but a Disney-perfect one to boot, in which truth and innocence bring balm to a dysfunctional family and a city full of raging capitalists. But the movie allows Favreau to gently tweak cutesy Mouse House production values without abandoning the concept, and it proves a splendid sandbox for his talents as director, actor and (who knew?) cartoonist. The most endearing and visually inventive set pieces in Elf play out in a toy store and in Walter’s mailroom, where Buddy brings joy to the world by creating a winter wonderland wherever he goes. For his part, Ferrell doesn’t do much other than prance about being good-natured, and though the actor is somewhat glassy-eyed, as if longing to be off somewhere doing impressions, in his statutory green-and-yellow costume topping enormous curly slippers he looks adorably like a giant zucchini with its roots still on. And though Elf deserves a good hiding for criminally underutilizing the divine comedy of Zooey Deschanel, who plays Buddy’s love interest (and, unexpectedly, sings like a nightingale), I cannot find it in my heart to spank a movie that boasts Bob Newhart in chrome-yellow tights, bifocals, and the same empty stare that made him the world’s goofiest television therapist.
LOVE ACTUALLY | Written and directed by RICHARD CURTIS Produced by DUNCAN KENWORTHY, TIM BEVAN and ERIC FELLNER Released by Universal Pictures | Citywide
ELF | Directed by JON FAVREAU | Written by DAVID BERENBAUM Produced by JON BERG, TODD KOMARNICKI and SHAUNA WEINBERG | Released by New Line Cinema | Citywide