Lovesick Brits Ooze Treacle

Maybe it’s just me, but does anyone else find most of today’s alleged screen “comedies” so rueful, insipid and dumb that you rarely crack a smile while watching them? We could all use some pain relief from the congestion of cruelty, depression and violence we’ve been getting from the movies lately, but the facile humor in a labored and cliché-riddled British piffle called Love Actually does not fill my prescription. The holiday season fast approaches, but this ensemble piece about a muddled gaggle of lovesick Londoners in the weeks before Christmas oozes so much phony Yuletide treacle that your skin could break out.

In his directing debut, Richard Curtis, beloved as the screenwriter of Notting Hill , Four Weddings and a Funeral and Bridget Jones’s Diary , bastes a bloated battalion of bores for what is supposed to be a celebratory feast devoted to the theory that even in troubled and cynical times, “love actually is everywhere.” Nice sentiment for a needlepoint sampler, maybe, but the multiple stories designed to conjure visions of this filmmaker’s sugar plums add up to no more than skits on British telly about fathers and sons, husbands and wives, friends and officemates, aging rock stars and the horny heads of mighty nations. Except for one black person, they are all white-bread Anglo-Saxon heterosexuals, which should give you some idea of how believable, diverse and au courant the movie is. The cast of characters is vast, with a famous face in almost every cameo, and includes a cuckolded crime writer (Colin Firth) who flees to the South of France for inspiration and falls for a housekeeper who speaks nothing but Portuguese; a recently widowed father (Liam Neeson) who shares his powers of seduction with his precocious 11-year-old son; and a shy junior manager (Laura Linney) who has a mad crush on a sexy co-worker, but is too disabled by a guilt-ridden pathological devotion to her mentally ill brother to consummate the affair. Meanwhile, her fatuous boss (Alan Rickman) busily toys with getting himself seduced by the office slut, torturing his long-suffering but devoted wife (Emma Thompson), who is the sister of England’s randy new prime minister (Hugh Grant), who chases everything in panties. Mr. Grant, who has never passed a mirror he didn’t want to kiss, does an oversexed bachelor spin on Tony Blair while nose-thumbing an oil painting of Margaret Thatcher. He’s the most absurd character on the premises-a hip P.M. who discos till dawn, shakes his fanny through the halls of 10 Downing Street and, in the film’s most implausible sequence, battles for the sexual conquest of a curvaceous staff member with the lecherous, fang-dripping and thoroughly obnoxious President of the United States (Billy Bob Thornton, in another of his many wigs, parodying the worst flaws of both Bill Clinton and George Bush).

Had enough? I haven’t even gotten to the part about the naked couple who meet as stand-ins for two porno stars, or the beautiful new bride torn between her groom and his best man, or the waiter who travels all the way to Wisconsin to find fulfillment with two American nymphomaniacs at the same time, or the vulgar, clownish has-been pop singer (Bill Nighy) trying to make a comeback. Some of the sketches come to nothing, others are abandoned totally when writer-director Curtis runs out of ideas and can’t think of anything else for them to say. All of them are accompanied by a relentless, headache-inducing score of noisy, second-rate tunes from the British pop charts.

It isn’t often that you find so many swell folks making asses of themselves while trying desperately to seem très amusant . I found them all lost, superficial and annoyingly dull. In the end, the whole cast alights from the same plane in the arrivals hall at Heathrow. Where did they go? When did they leave? Why are they all on the same flight? And while I’m asking questions, where are Glenn Miller, Judge Crater and Amelia Earhart?

This movie is so unfunny, uninspired and unoriginal I swear it could have started out as a club-footed Coen Brothers vehicle for George Clooney. Certainly it’s a misguided catastrophe on the level of Intolerable Cruelty . In fairness, I confess I seem to be a minority of one. People all around me screamed with delight every time Hugh Grant bumbled and winked and flirted with himself in the paroxysm of self-love that has become his acting style. People need humor, no matter how dense and doltish it is. They need a little Christmas, they need it early, and the idiotic thought of Britain’s prime minister dashing through the snow on Christmas Eve looking for poontang and getting trapped in a roundelay of Christmas carols is enough to satisfy the most sophomoric tastes. I don’t know what other light refreshments are planned for the forthcoming festive season, but personally, I like a little higher octane in my holiday punch.

Dance Therapy

Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks is a two-hander about the lonely, rigid widow of a Baptist minister filling in the blank spaces and empty days of her retirement years in Florida, and the troubled, flamboyant and angry gay dance instructor who arrives for weekly sessions of bitchy tea and sympathy. In two acts and seven scenes, the “passive-aggressive queen with bad attitude” and the “tight-assed old biddy” mellow and melt their protective veneers until she learns to jitterbug, tango, waltz, fox-trot, cha-cha and disco, he learns to trust, and both of them learn the healing powers of compassion and the restorative values of friendship. It’s the kind of sit-com that should keep community dinner theaters busy for years. The play isn’t much, but the main reasons to see it in its present form are called Polly Bergen and Mark Hamill. They are knockouts, dispensing magic in two stylish, high-spirited star turns of vigor, versatility and just the right combination of humor and humanity to make audiences laugh and cry at the same time. You won’t find actors of their eminence in summer stock. How lucky we are that they dropped in.

Ailing Cat

Like most Tennessee Williams plays, I’ve seen countless productions of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof , but none as limp as the current revival at the Music Box. From the ludicrous set to the exaggerated Southern drawls, nothing jells. I’ve visited my share of plantations in the Mississippi Delta, but I have yet to find one with brown rattan, white wicker, wooden wainscoting, wrought iron and ugly upholstery in the same room. This could be a house in the Bronx, but never the estate of a rich cotton planter like Big Daddy. As the vulgar, self-made redneck dying of cancer, Ned Beatty is no Burl Ives, but the second act, which is his big scene with his alcoholic son Brick, shows him off to excellent advantage and is the best of the three acts. The big surprise is Jason Patric as a studly, understated Brick. Usually Brick is a disillusioned observer, pickled in bourbon and nearly catatonic. Mr. Patric is an arresting mixture of sensuality and dissipation whose flame still burns brightly behind glazed eyes. The big disappointment is movie star Ashley Judd as his conniving wife, Maggie. Of all the mesmerizing ladies I have seen in this commanding and erotic role, she is the choppiest, flightiest, noisiest and least convincing. Her accent is so phony that, like everything in Anthony Page’s production, it seems made in Taiwan. Every word is accompanied by a gesture, whole sentences stick to the roof of her mouth like grits. Worst of all, this Maggie and Brick seem to hate each other. They talk over and around each other, rarely touching or making eye contact. In the last scene, when Ms. Judd moves Mr. Patric to the bed to conceive the child that might seal their inheritance of Big Daddy’s money, there is so little warmth and chemistry between them that they scarcely look like they have even been introduced. I don’t think this is exactly what Tennessee Williams had in mind for two of his sexiest animals, fighting tooth and claw for domination of the species. This Cat doesn’t growl, it just meows awhile and wanders off looking for Little Friskies.