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In love with love

'Four Weddings' scribe Richard Curtis nurtures a new role: director

September 10, 2003|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Toronto — Toronto

As the author of a series of wildly successful British film comedies and sitcoms, including "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Bean," "Notting Hill" and "Bridget Jones's Diary," you'd imagine Richard Curtis might've conquered his fear of failure by now. But when the engaging, 46-year-old writer took the stage at the venerable Elgin Theater Sunday night at the Toronto Film Festival to introduce "Love Actually," his much-anticipated debut film as a director, it was clear all he could think about was not glittering prizes but impending doom.

"This is only the second time I've been to a film festival," he said hesitantly. "And I'm so hoping it's going to go better than the first time."

He recalled that when "Four Weddings" was shown in Salt Lake City during a Sundance Film Festival in the early '90s, a volley of obscenities that Hugh Grant sputtered at the very beginning of the film didn't go over especially well with a large Mormon contingent in the audience. "Before the credits were over," Curtis dryly recalled, "47 very large people walked out of the theater."

History did not repeat itself Sunday night. Packed with an all-star ensemble of British comedic actors, as well as a couple of American imports, "Love Actually" earned a rousing reception from the packed house. Set largely in London at Christmas, it weaves together a dizzying array of romantic entanglements, some broadly funny, others bittersweet. As with Curtis' other films, the humor is layered with authentic emotion -- the wry comedy of awkward situations and rude surprises, as well as the wincing humor of longing and heartbreak.

The jokes are stoked by Curtis' abiding affection for pop culture, whether in a scene where a bereaved husband blasts the Bay City Rollers at his wife's funeral or a vignette at 10 Downing Street, where the prime minister, played by Grant, looks for inspiration from a photograph of Margaret Thatcher, muttering under his breath, "Oh, you saucy minx."

Due out in November from Universal Pictures, the film features the return of such Curtis regulars as Grant, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson and Rowan Atkinson, plus Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Keira Knightley and Bill Nighy, who plays an aging rock star trying to make a comeback with a holiday-season remake of the lowbrow pop standard "Love Is All Around."

As in most Curtis films, love is the inspiration for both the story and the laughs, though the press-shy writer-director, who has only rarely given interviews until now, is loathe to analyze the reasons behind his preoccupation with the subject. When I ask for an explanation over lunch the day after his premiere, Curtis has quite the comeback. "I'm sure my girlfriend, Emma, could get to the bottom of it," he says, "since she's a real Freud -- Sigmund Freud's great-granddaughter. But I haven't asked."

Curtis, who with his graying hair and spectacles has the studious air of an independent bookshop clerk, sighs and stares at his soup. "A lot of it has to do with my first real girlfriend leaving me. I suppose I've been trying to repair the damage ever since." He cannily pauses for a moment before adding: "I guess I owe her a lot of money for sleeping with that other guy."

Mainstream enters fray

As someone whose films are unabashedly commercial, Curtis is hardly the sort of edgy artiste you'd expect to see at a film festival like this. But in the last couple of years, the Toronto festival has undergone a major transformation, presenting mainstream Hollywood fare alongside obscure Korean dramas and Brazilian documentaries.

Roaming around the festival, I've bumped into more celebrities and industry top guns that you can see in a month at the Grill. Nearly every studio has a major fall release here, including such star-driven films as "Matchstick Men" (Warner Bros.), "Out of Time" (MGM), "School of Rock" (Paramount), "Veronica Guerin" (Disney) and "The Human Stain" (Miramax). Nicole Kidman, who's here promoting two films ("Human Stain" and "Dogville"), made the front page of the Toronto Sun, with the headline: "FEAR FACTOR: Nicole Suffers Stage Fright in Every Role!"

Universal, which had great success launching its Eminem hit, "8 Mile," at last year's festival, had no qualms about debuting "Love Actually" this time around. The studio's entire top brass was here, as well as its Working Title production team and film co-stars Firth, Linney and Rodrigo Santoro.

"If you have a film that delivers, there's nothing like the galvanizing reaction you get in Toronto; it's like lightning in a bottle," Universal publicity chief Michael Moses says. "This is that rare opportunity to get national, regional and worldwide press together with an incredibly appreciative audience. If you have a satisfying film, the radiating coverage you get is crucial to starting any good word-of-mouth campaign."

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