Richard Curtis's latest is a labor of love, actually

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's hard not to smile when writer/director Richard Curtis says that he has never made a genre movie. Because after all, he's pretty much cornered the market for romantic comedy in his home country - and has little serious competition in the US, for that matter.

That said, his latest film, "Love Actually," doesn't conform to the romantic-comedy template. True, Hugh Grant does star in it. There are romantic first kisses. And Mr. Curtis hasn't dispensed with the usual plotline of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back at the airport before she boards a plane.

But in "Love Actually" there are 22 main characters and nine parallel storylines. Furthermore, the movie is about the many faces of love - platonic, parental, unrequited, and adulterous, among others. It may be a romantic comedy but, notes producer Tim Bevan, "nobody in this film actually says, 'I love you.' "

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Yet after three major hits in the genre - "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Notting Hill," and "Bridget Jones' Diary" - Curtis says he never set out to fit into a comfortable label. "Even when I was doing 'Four Weddings and a Funeral,' " he says of the film that launched Hugh Grant's career and lifted Curtis onto the international A-list of screenwriters, "I thought of it as a small, observational movie along the lines of 'Breaking Away,' or 'Gregory's Girl.' "

These days, his interests are drifting further in that direction. "Maybe it's because I'm getting deeper into my own family life," says the bespectacled, gray-haired writer. He says the kinds of films that interest him now deal with the parts of life that usually occur before or after the credits of a mainstream movie. "I'm interested in ... the everyday details that make up a real life," he says.

Attention to detail and a desire to paint a broad canvas of "regular life" have been evident in Curtis's writing from the outset, says Mr. Bevan, who calls Curtis's work "a great chocolate box of life with all the best bits tucked in."

He takes his time with scripts. His last original script, "Notting Hill," was nearly five years ago ("Diary" was an adaptation of the bestselling book). "Actually" is his first outing as director of his own work. "It was about time," he says.

Unlike the situation with many Hollywood films, Curtis had been on the set of most of his earlier films. The writer has always been allowed to sign off on the final cut of his movies but, even so, he'd reached the point where he was so sure of what he wanted in a shot that it was useless to keep "hammering someone else into getting it right," he says.

This labor of love was inspired by the films such as "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "Nashville," of American filmmakers Woody Allen and Robert Altman, which Curtis describes as crowded with the details of everyday anguish.

Although the opening narration sequence in his film refers to 9/11, Curtis began work on it long before the disaster. But, he says, that event served to focus his contention that, even in the face of the worst human conditions, love is the most consistent emotion we have.

"It's a good reminder that love takes many forms," says American actress Laura Linney, who stars as an office worker who tries to balance familial love for a mentally unbalanced brother with her desire for a co-worker, an effort that ultimately fails. But, says the actress, that's part of the point of the film. "To limit your choices," she says, "limits your resources as a person."

Balancing so many competing storylines proved daunting and unwieldy: The first version of the script clocked in at nearly five hours. "The challenge was to come up with nine good beginnings, good middles, and good endings," says Curtis.

Curtis began as a TV writer, working with longtime partner Rowan Atkinson (who has a great cameo as a jewelry clerk who takes his time wrapping a gift intended for an adulterous liaison).

This work shaped the writer's style. "I don't understand not wanting to please an audience," he says. Also, and in the end perhaps most important, he learned the art and craft of editing.

"We'd start out with 15 sketches, then we'd take the best three," he says, adding, "editing is second nature to me."

This particular penchant is a lifesaver when it comes to weaving together so many storylines in a nice, tight Christmas package of a film. "The film is so economical," says Andrew Lincoln, whose character pursues an unrequited love. "Everything is distilled and refined, you fill in the dots outside the film," he says, largely because each story was allocated no more than four to five scenes each.

"Working with Richard is like having a scientific lesson in comedy," says Colin Firth, whose cuckolded writer falls for his Portuguese housekeeper, even though the two don't share a language in common. The actor is currently filming another Curtis screenplay, the sequel to the "Bridget Jones's Diary." Firth's assessment of Curtis: "He's the best in the business when it comes to romantic comedy."

The film has had mixed reviews. Curtis supporters chalk this up to an endemic postmodern cynicism about the tender emotions. "There's a lot of hiding behind irony and flaunting worldiness," says Firth. "But for anyone who is weary of that, this is welcome."

Bringing an adult sensibility to the mainstream romantic comedy is Curtis's real contribution to the film world, says Gary Edgerton, coeditor of the Journal of Popular Film & Television. This is a genre that has been hijacked by the teen date movie.

"When you think of the broader romantic comedies of Hollywood, [Curtis' films] are clearly stronger in character," says Mr. Edgerton, with more subtleties and a slower pace.

Curtis's movies are hybrids, neither pure art-house film nor pure popcorn flick. "They have ... a level of subtlety you don't find even in films like 'When a Man Loves a Woman.' "

Without question, the most unexpected love story in the film is between a jaded, aging rock star who finds, after a long night of partying, that the closest relationship he has to love is with his long-suffering manager. "It's completely platonic love," says Bill Nighy, who plays the singer. "It's with someone I've taken for granted my whole life. It's a tender, moving moment that just happens with friends sometimes."

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