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Smitten Britons

Fools for love _ and isn't that most us? _ will get sucked into Love Actually quicker than overpriced multiplex soda through a straw.

Director/screenwriter Richard Curtis' love letter to, well, love is a thoroughly modern, witty and mostly satisfying romantic comedy starring a cavalcade of fabulous British actors. More notable than who's in the movie are those Brits who aren't. (Kenneth Branagh and dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench must have been somewhere polishing their Old English.)

Curtis, who wrote the screenplays for Four Weddings and Funeral, Bridget Jones's Diary and Notting Hill, makes his directorial debut admirably, though he's given himself a lot to juggle. The 10 interwoven stories of Love Actually are at least two too many, but which ones should have been dumped will depend on the viewer. Each will ring true with someone.

Me, I'd drop the story of the porn star stand-ins who aren't too shy to simulate sex acts on a movie set, but are giggly at the thought of their first kiss. The nudity is jarring and there are better laughs elsewhere.

Love Actually begins with a montage of airport greetings and Hugh Grant giving the big thumbs up, via voice-over, to love. In fact, love is all around us, he says, just like the 1968 Troggs song that should get top billing because it's played so much.

From that setup, Love Actually dives into a sea of romantic stories, some funny, some serious, set mostly in London at Christmas. The city looks lovely, bedecked in twinkling lights and a dusting of snow.

Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, as a married couple whose relationship is threatened by his sexy and aggressive secretary, and Laura Linney, whose dedication to her troubled brother supersedes her own desires, give the film's most riveting performances. Their stories will stay with viewers longer than Keira Knightley's (Bend It Like Beckham, Pirates of the Caribbean) gossamer turn as a new bride whose husband's best friend is in love with her, or some of the other minor stories.

Colin Firth, continuing to make a name for himself as the thinking woman's Hugh Grant, is cuddly and befuddly as a scorned husband. He picks himself up quite nicely, thank you, hooking up with a Girl Friday who speaks no English.

Bill Nighy, better known in Great Britain for his serious roles, is deliciously incorrect as a has-been pop star back on the charts with a wretched remake of Love is All Around. Thankfully, the usually over-the-top Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean, Johnny English) is kept in stiff-upper-lip check. Liam Neeson plays a widower raising a stepson who teaches him a lesson about love and moving on.

But Grant as a sheepish, yet endearingly cute, British prime minister? Yeah, right, when Arnold Schwarzenegger is governor of California. Oh. Never mind.

Grant's foul-mouthed P.M. falls in love at first sight with an assistant, which isn't a particularly strong or interesting story. But watching Grant wiggle his bum through the halls of No. 10 Downing St. to the Pointer Sisters' Jump is a memorable movie moment.

The soundtrack, including music by Joni Mitchell, Dido, Kelly Clarkson, Wyclef Jean, Norah Jones, the Beach Boys and Otis Redding, drives the movie nearly as much as the screenplay, which is not always a good thing. In some cases, the music selection is cliche (Thompson's emotional awakening via Joni Mitchell), in others, it's too obvious (All You Need is Love.) Mostly, though, you'll be tapping your feet.

Curtis takes some good-natured shots at the United States by portraying the president (played by Billy Bob Thornton in bad toupee) as a sleazy, lying bully. Also, he pokes fun at the accent lust of many American women. One hilarious story line has a geeky bloke scoring big with a bevy of gorgeous women in Wisconsin, all because he talks "so cute." We're busted, gals.

Love Actually is no Four Weddings and a Funeral, or even Notting Hill. Yes, it has the foppish Grant but the quirky friends and family that inhabit Curtis' other movies have been tossed off the marquee by bigger names. Our loss.

Regardless, grab a date and go. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll be entertained.


Love Actually

Grade: B

Director: Richard Curtis

Cast: Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Rowan Atkinson, Colin Firth, Keira Knightley, Bill Nighy, Alan Rickman, Billy Bob Thornton

Screenplay: Richard Curtis

Rating: R; nudity, profanity, mature themes

Running time: 128 minutes