Emma Thompson in Love ActuallyLOVE ACTUALLY

If you are to believe the (mostly) glowing responses to Love Actually, writer-director Richard Curtis has compressed material for a half-dozen romantic comedies into one, creating, in the words of one reviewer, "an epic romantic comedy." But that's not exactly accurate. For his first directorial outing, Curtis - the clever, funny screenwriter of Four Weddings & A Funeral and Notting Hill - has apparently decided to take every idea he's ever had, every last one, and blend them into a frothy, holiday-themed confection; it's less an epic romantic comedy than a romantic comedy shaped as an epic (which isn't the same).

Love Actually features great ideas and bum ideas, lovingly drawn characters and stock ones, scenes of almost unbearable romantic torment and the cheapest of gags, and the result is an enjoyable, occasionally frustrating, often dizzying work. It's like sitting at a two-hour pitch meeting where Curtis barrages you with every conceivable romantic-comedy setup the genre can offer in the hopes that you'll greenlight at least one of them, and in this regard, Curtis' shamelessness is rather touching. By its finale, even the material in Love Actually that you didn't care for becomes part of the film's grand design and is inseparable from the material you loved. This being his directorial debut, Curtis is, understandably, light years behind someone like Altman in terms of masterfully navigating an ensemble-driven comedy - the movie doesn't have the giddy thrill of Nashville or Short Cuts or Gosford Park - but it's no small compliment to say he's certainly achieved the British-romantic-comedy equivalent of Parenthood.

Richard Curtis isn't just clever but smart; he knows that, on their own, none of this movie's subplots could sustain a full-length feature film. (At least not a good one.) An unlucky-in-love English writer and his Portuguese maid fall for one another, even though neither understands the other's language. The newly elected Prime Minister becomes enamored with his assistant on his first day in office. A grieving widower helps his stepson deal with his first romantic crush. A long-term marriage is threatened by the husband's potential adultery. A man harbors an unrequited passion for his best friend's new wife. A mousy American contemplates a liaison with a hunky co-worker. And there's more. Much more. What Curtis shrewdly does in Love Actually is give all of his characters the 10 or 15 minutes of screen time they're worth and dovetail them with the others - for instance, the Prime Minister is the brother of the middle-aged wife who is the best friend of the widower - so what results is a glorious mess of a movie, so overpopulated yet big-hearted that it's nearly irresistible.

Nearly. The film opens with astounding tastelessness, as Curtis trots out the 9/11 tragedy to underline his pithy "love is all around us" theme, and a few meanderings - especially Colin Firth's fumblings as the writer - I could have easily done without. And oftentimes Curtis' ideas are better than his ability to pull them off: A subplot detailing the courtship between two nude movie stand-ins, who shyly banter while simulating sex, is probably funnier on paper than onscreen, while a prolonged joke about a homely Brit who travels to Wisconsin for sex has a poor follow-through. But what's great about Love Actually easily outweighs what's not, and what's almost irrefutably great is the cast. Among the more notable players are Emma Thompson, with her devastating sadness; Bill Nighy, a pitch-perfect mockery of '70s rock gone to seed; Laura Linney, whose registry of unfettered happiness is the film's most winning moment; Andrew Lincoln, heartbreakingly in love with the astonishingly pretty Keira Knightley; and, of course, Hugh Grant, with his peerless capacity to make almost any line funny. (Richard Curtis already displays one earmark of a fine director: Even though they're occasionally working with weak material, Curtis makes all of his actors look good.) By movie's end, you've become so fond of Curtis' characters, and the work that went into commingling their stories, that your grievances about the film become mere quibbles; Love Actually is a big holiday feast that definitely overindulges but just as certainly satisfies.


Russell Crowe in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the WorldMASTER & COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD

For less than $10, you can get a pretty comprehensive master class in the art of directing by seeing Peter Weir's Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World. Based on books one and 10 in Patrick O'Brien's 20-volume tale of Captain Jack Aubrey, commander of the H.M.S. Surprise, Master & Commander is a rousing spectacle, thrillingly produced and boasting yet another magnificent Russell Crowe performance. Yet it might have been just a rousing spectacle - a perfectly entertaining big-budget genre work - if not for the nearly breathtaking artistry of Peter Weir. It's tempting to say that Mr. Weir has a more impressive track record than any of his contemporaries. When he gets his hands on meaty material, the results at their best - The Truman Show, Fearless, The Year of Living Dangerously - reveal an almost electrical charge of pure filmmaking talent, and even lesser works such as The Mosquito Coast and Green Card are helmed with detail and nuance. (I don't think it's a coincidence that two of the weaker screenplays Weir has worked with - those for Witness and Dead Poets Society - went on to win Academy Awards; Weir makes these scripts play far better than they deserved to.) Master & Commander ranks with Weir's finest achievements not only because he has marvelously engaging source material - Weir and co-writer John Collee have shaped O'Brien's work beautifully - but because of the breadth of styles and emotions within that material.

It would be easy to characterize Master & Commander as a seafaring adventure along the lines of Mutiny on the Bounty, but that would minimize the film's impact as drama, as thriller, even as comedy; the film stands as one of 2003's few complete entertainments, and for that we have Peter Weir to thank. I'm thinking, offhand, of his staging of the wondrously creepy opening, where the ship's crewmates are aware that something lies in the darkness ahead of them, yet are unsure of what. Or the depths of melancholy Weir reaches with a troubled officer's shocking suicide. Or the highly comic interplay Weir establishes between Crowe's Aubrey and doctor Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany, partnering Crowe flawlessly) that turns wrenchingly poignant. (Master & Commander is a true rarity: an unsentimental movie that earns tears.) Or the blistering reality Weir and his designers create of life and death aboard the Surprise. And, above all, Weir's unflagging respect for the world he's created. Nearly every scene of Master & Commander is alive with filmmaking craft and even magic; despite forthcoming competition from the likes of Cold Mountain and The Return of the King, this year's Best Picture race might be, deservedly, all sewn up.

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