Richard Curtis: The critics have fallen out of love with him, actually

Andrew Gumbel
Saturday 15 November 2003 01:00
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For as long as anyone can remember, Richard Curtis has been the guy who can do no wrong. But that may be about to change. He's had stellar reviews for just about everything he's turned his hand to: wordless comedy sketches, gag-filled television series and, of course, his international mega-hit films, from Four Weddings and a Funeral to Bridget Jones's Diary.

In a movie world where the status of the average writer hovers somewhere between office cleaner and general factotum, the very fact that he has made his name, and imposed his personality, on the strength of his writing alone is a considerable achievement. The comic tropes that have been his stock in trade - all those warm, wittily observed romantic mismatches pitting chronically under-confident men with improbably gorgeous women - have reliably charmed critics and audiences alike. You could almost call him a national treasure, not least because of his considerable contribution to Britain's export earnings.

All that, though, was before the release of his latest film Love Actually, which also marks his directorial debut. Suddenly the critics aren't quite so charmed. In some cases, in fact, they are downright nauseated. The ensemble piece, which follows the meandering fortunes of nine separate love matches, has, at least in theory, everything one could dream of in a modern British comedy: jokes galore, wryly amusing characters and the sort of cast most producers would kill for (Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Laura Linney, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Rowan Atkinson, Bill Nighy... need I go on?)

Clearly, though, something is missing. One only has to look at the drubbing Curtis's American critics have given him. Previously they, more than anyone, fell hook, line and sinker for the beguiling, scatty, supremely accessible fantasies he has constructed around upper-middle class British life. But no more.

The New York Times pronounced Love Actually to a be an "indigestible Christmas pudding" of a movie and deemed it no better than a garbage bag, right down to its neatly tied loose ends. The Washington Post deplored the "sentimentalism that seems to have been applied with a trowel". And Stephanie Zacharek, writing in the online magazine Salon, declared: "If movie theatres had windows, I would have jumped out of one by the end of Love Actually."

Curtis, it must be said, has been on the receiving end of this sort of opprobrium before, and on the whole he has known how to take it in his stride. A few years ago, Martin Amis recounted in the pages of The New Yorker how he and Salman Rushdie - then still living under Special Branch protection - had sat out a security delay in a Hendon cinema and watched Four Weddings and a Funeral with what one can only suppose was a sneering determination not to laugh at any cost.

"Well, that was bottomlessly horrible," Amis quoted himself saying afterwards. "Why is it so popular?"

"Because," Rushdie responded, "the world has bad taste. Didn't you know that?"

Amis may have had a point about the distinctly superficial world view underpinning Curtis's gleeful volley of jokes, but he couched it in the sort of cultural snobbery most people flock to the commercial cinema precisely to avoid. His piece was so vituperative - so bottomlessly horrible, in fact - that it largely rebounded on the author. As for Rushdie, he was clearly forgiven, because several years later he was given a gently teasing cameo as himself in Bridget Jones's Diary.

More trouble awaited Curtis when one of the earliest US screenings of Four Weddings took place in Salt Lake City in front of a sizeable Mormon contingent. As Curtis recounted recently while promoting Love Actually at the Toronto Film Festival, nobody laughed in the opening scene, when a bleary-eyed Hugh Grant utters the single word "fuck" over and over. "Before the credits were over," Curtis said, "47 very large people walked out of the theatre."

This time around, the nature of the criticism is somewhat different. It is not that Curtis's detractors don't like his work; in fact, quite a few would probably call themselves fans. Rather, they are showing ominous signs of being fed up with him, and that's an altogether trickier problem to resolve. They say, and they are probably right, that we have seen these characters and these situations a few too many times before. How many cosily supportive packs of friends, or amusingly bonkers flatmates, can we really tolerate? How often can we watch an affable, tongue-tied man make a mad dash to a public place to make an 11th-hour declaration of undying love? (In Love Actually, there are no fewer than three.)

Then there is the thing that Martin Amis was trying to get at, the utter dearth of meaningful reflection on the nature of love except as a source of comedic misunderstandings and contrived happy endings. In the past, this didn't matter too much because the audience had other, more entertaining distractions, like Hugh Grant's priceless turn as a would-be reporter for Horse & Hound in Notting Hill, or Rowan Atkinson as a malaprop-ridden priest invoking "Father, Son and Holy Spigot".

But in Love Actually, the message is front and centre, and could not be more trite. Love is all around, we are told by no less a fictional creation than the Prime Minister. Well, that's nice. It's also a line from a pop song. A pop song Curtis likes so much he has used it in two of his films. You begin to see the problem.

Then again, what do critics know? Curtis has shown down the years that he understands far more about tapping into the taste of mass audiences than they ever will. Initial box-office figures for Love Actually - it opened in the United States a week ago - look extremely healthy, and there is every reason to suppose they will stay that way. Perhaps, if the new film is overly familiar and hopelessly sentimental, those are traits the audiences are prepared to endure, or even indulge.

One of Curtis's oldest friends (who preferred not to be identified) put it this way: "His attitude is that life should be fun, that it can be fun, and that you get the best out of people through humour. That's why people watch his films even if they are slightly flawed and sometimes a bit gooey, because you just come out thinking positively rather than negatively. It's great being around a positive force. Who wants to be around a negative force?"

It's an attitude that has been Curtis's recipe for success in life generally, not just in his screen work. From the moment he teamed up with Rowan Atkinson when they were both at Oxford in the 1970s, he has established crucial friendships and professional alliances that he has then maintained through thick and thin. Atkinson brought him on to Not the Nine O'Clock News, where he hooked up with Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones and producer John Lloyd. With Lloyd and Atkinson he moved on to Blackadder, which placed him at the centre of British comedy. Mel Smith directed his first film script, The Tall Guy, which brought Curtis in contact with Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner of Working Title films, the company responsible for every one of his subsequent successes and first brought him together with his most reliable on-screen protagonist, Hugh Grant.

Through all these felicitous encounters, Curtis has worked hard to fight to protect the spirit of his words in the finished product, whether on television or the big screen. It certainly helps that his temperament is to be collaborative in everything he does: he bounces his ideas and lines around extensively before finalising them, using everyone from his long-term girlfriend Emma Freud (mother to their three children, with a fourth on the way) to old friends such as Helen Fielding, the author of Bridget Jones. Fielding and he share a similar sense of the ridiculous, although she tends to work more from close observation of people while he works more straight out of his head.

One thing he is not is ditsy or self-immolating in the way his Hugh Grant characters are on screen. "There is nothing self-deprecating about him. He is in fact incredibly articulate, very witty, charming and generous in conversation. He likes things to turn out well, and he is very thorough in his approach to everything," his friend says. As the commercial success of his films attests, he has considerable business savvy and knows how to market himself - skills he has also lent to his work with Comic Relief.

He once told an interviewer that the reason he has such a developed sense of the absurd when it comes to relationships is because he had his heart broken by his first serious girlfriend. "I guess I owe her a lot of money for sleeping with that other guy," he joked.

Could that girlfriend be Anne Jenkin, who is married to the Conservative MP, Bernard Jenkin, shadow Secretary of State for the Regions? All of Curtis's scripts, from Blackadder to Love Actually, contain a bumbling character named Bernard. In Four Weddings, Bernard is the friend whose loud lovemaking Hugh Grant is forced to overhear. Jenkin himself says that he thinks Curtis is "eaten up with jealousy that I got the girl", and adds that he is "very flattered that I have had such a seminal influence on one of our great comic writers".

It's hard to judge how well the Curtis oeuvre will stand the test of time - whether it will still be laugh-out-loud funny in a couple of generations' time, or viewed fondly like some of the quainter Ealing comedies are now, or considered simply dated. What he has most cleverly achieved, perhaps, is the creation of a world that is at once artificial and intriguing, a fictional slice of England that is several degrees wittier, sunnier and more debonair than the real thing, and thereby boundlessly appealing to a worldwide audience.

People around the globe now associate England with Hugh Grant babbling amusingly about the Partridge Family to his inamorata, in much the same way that they used to associate us with busbied Horseguards. The tourist board, for a start, would surely urge us not to knock Dick Curtis too hard.

Life story

Born

8 November 1956, to Anthony J Curtis, a Unilever executive, and Glyness S Curtis.

Family

Has two sons and one daughter with his partner, Emma Vallencey Freud, great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud.

Education

Papplewick School; Harrow School; Christ Church, Oxford (BA).

Screen writing

Television: Not the Nine O'clock News (four series), 1979-83; Blackadder (four series), 1984-89;

Mr Bean, 1989-95; Bernard and the Genie, 1993; The Vicar of Dibley, 1994-2000. Films: The Tall Guy, 1988; Four Weddings and a Funeral, 1994; Bean, 1997; Notting Hill, 1999; Bridget Jones's Diary, 2001 (jointly); Love Actually, 2003 (writer and director).

Awards

Golden Globe 1995, Best Screenplay (nominated); British Academy Awards 2001, Best Adapted Screenplay (nominated); Writers' Guild of America 2001, Best Adapted Screenplay (nominated).

Honours

CBE, 2000; MBE, 1995.

Hobbies

"Too many films, too much TV, too much pop music."

He says

"You won't find many people who've had an easier ride in movies than I."

They say

"Love Actually is a patchwork of contrived naughtiness and forced pathos, an indigestible Christmas pudding from the British whimsy factory." - A O Scott, The New York Times

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