Hugh Grant? Romance? Whaa?

After writing Four Weddings and a Funeral, Black Adder, Mr. Bean and Bridget Jones’ Diary, acid-penned Brit auteur Richard Curtis would seemingly have nowhere left to go. After all, yet another romantic comedy starring Hugh Grant (this would make four in a row) might wear a little thin on some members of the audience. But Curtis is undeterred in casting the American Brit for a wildly implausible part as the new British Prime Heart-throb/Minister in his new film, Love Actually.

And Curtis doesn’t stop with Grant. For his first spin in the director’s chair, he’s recruited nearly a dozen A-list stars to carry the project, from Emma Thompson to Liam Neeson: a move that has the uneasy tone of an ill-conceived reimagining of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Thankfully, however, Curtis keeps a tight leash on the cast and has produced a film that is unquestionably the best comedy of the year.

The film’s tagline, "the ultimate romantic comedy," is fitting. Love Actually is composed of eight superficially connected love stories, all taking place concurrently in the weeks leading up to Christmas. It’s an ambitious concept, especially since most romantic comedies have enough trouble putting together even one thrilling plot but, for the most part, Love Actually’s high concept works devilishly well.

The manic pacing of the eight stories allows Curtis to cheat a little when it comes to including meaty characterization and any sort of plot exposition, so viewers should not expect a dense or challenging filmgoing experience–as if such a thing should be expected from any romantic comedy.

We start with Hugh Grant, the new British PM, who (predictably) falls in love with his overly attractive maid on his first day in office. The maid’s neighbor (Heike Makatsch) is a secretary for a magazine mogul (Alan Rickman), whose wife (Emma Thompson) suspects something naughty is up between the two. Rickman’s other, decidedly unattractive secretary (Laura Linney) pines for an unattainable co-worker with disgustingly huge abs of steel.

Meanwhile, Colin Firth had just discovered he’s become a cuckold and takes a trip to the country to get his head in order (and hook up with a Portuguese housekeeper who doesn’t speak any English). Firth’s friend, played by Liam Neeson, has just lost his wife, in a boating accident or something, and both he and his son are about to embark on the difficult mourning process.

You get the idea–the film’s web of characters is drawn almost at random, and it’s a flaw that casual views would definitely notice if Curtis’ uniformly razor-sharp wit didn’t permeate every scene. The film’s most familiar romantic parable (complete with a public serenade and a race through Heathrow to catch a lover’s plane before it leaves) centers around an eight-year-old boy trying to win the heart of his one true love.

The satire playing throughout the film is brilliant and delivered without nudges or winks to the audience. Even Love Actually’s "heavy" scenes are delicate send-ups of age old romantic comedy standbys.

Not only does Love Actually have excellent comedic performances by a top-notch cast (watch for Bill Nighy’s hilarious turn as an aging pop star), it also has excellent visual comedy, some halfway decent romance stories and, doggone it, a generous smattering of Christmas spirit.

Richard Curtis, you beautiful bastard, you’ve done it again.

Love Actually opens everywhere Fri., Nov. 7.

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