Notting Hill
Director: Roger Michell. Cast: Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Rhys Ifans, Emma Chambers, Gina McKee, Hugh Bonneville, Richard McCabe, Tim McInnerny, Alec Baldwin. Screenplay: Richard Curtis.

Notting Hill, the summer's first certified hit in the romantic comedy genre, finds Hugh Grant playing William Thacker, a divorced thirtysomething who works in his own quaint London travelbook shop. He is aware of how tiny his life is but is not bothered by living on such a small scale. Then again, his checkbook could stand a few more pounds from a few more customers, so it's exciting when a particularly lovely one enters his store on an otherwise ordinary day. A quick read of Notting Hill's premise is that this particular customary is, however, quite extraordinary. She is Anna Scott, the world's most fabulously famous movie star, and the romance that starts and stops and starts and so on between her and the Notting Hill shopkeeper is a sort of fairy tale for them both.

Notting Hill has almost instant appeal since, let's face it, Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts could probably star in an adaptation of one of William's travel guides and still set hearts a-flutter. What really keeps the picture interesting, though, and what tides the film over through some hackneyed plotting and overly-familiar characters, is that Anna Scott herself is not such a wondrous person as her fame and her wide smile might suggest. In fact, Anna is, as they say, a piece of work. She can be charming, but she is also rather rash and forgetful of the consequences of her decisions—and these are just the faults she admits to. One might say with equal fairness that Anna is a bit aloof, a tad deceitful, more than a little fickle, and generally all over the place.

In some senses, these traits in her character are disappointing. Screenwriter Richard Curtis, who also wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral, already perpetrated in that film's Andie MacDowell character the most maddeningly inconsistent, psychologically nebulous, and dramatically undeserving leading lady of any hit film this decade. The otherwise seaworthy Four Weddings smashed into a shoal every time MacDowell's Carrie made an appearance. By contrast, Anna Scott's occasional impudence and self-absorption work very much in Notting Hill's favor, especially because her character actually has reasons to be so high-strung. When tabloid journalists are forever nipping at your heels for the latest bit of "news," you cannot always be blamed for working up a snit or two.

But what's all this talk about Anna? The movie is much more about Hugh—I mean William. Before and even during all the "He's dating a celebrity" hoopla, William is quite bashful, committed to his family, and uniquely willing to overlook casual slights, romantic disappointments, and even minor betrayals from the people he cares about. Though his shop is obviously a labor of love, he does not live and breathe the book business as the Meg Ryan character did in You've Got Mail, nor is he quite so feisty, even in that impish Meg Ryan way. William's life is his neighborhood and his family. He is utterly unprepossessing, completely without artifice except at those moments when he covers up his own smarting feelings to assist a friend or lend an ear. Notting Hill, then, is not just about the complicated love between a famous person and an un-famous one, but the difficulty that an utterly genuine person experiences in trying to relate to his actress lover, whose job is to be an image, a performance, the star of her own three-ring life.

Speaking of performance, though, William is quite an achievement for Hugh Grant, who has deployed those stutters and fluttering eyelids through so many pictures that he's starting to get a bad rap as an actor. I disagree with those who say that Grant is merely a one-trick pony. Though his mannerisms are familiar, William is a much lonelier character than the hedonist from the dreadful Nine Months, a less libidinous one than his Four Weddings chap, and a more clever, gently observant, and self-protecting man than his slightly dim Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility. I liked William very much, and I believed that he would consider his sister's birthday party a more pressing obligation than a date with Julia Roberts, I mean Anna Scott.

Actually, that distinction is important. Anna Scott is a different person than Julia Roberts, and a demanding one to play at that. The role could either have been a thankless one, given how coarse or merely unappealing Anna can be, or else a self-indulgent excuse for a huge star to show how bedeviling it is to be cute and innocent but left without a private life. Roberts, whose recent work in My Best Friend's Wedding and Stepmom demonstrated her laudable willingness to appear nasty or impetuous, neither overstates nor downplays Anna's bad qualities. Lest I myself overstate them, Roberts and the filmmakers provide ample evidence of why William is drawn to Anna. She speaks well, she is interesting in knowing his family and friends, and she does not accept easy answers or stupid rules.

The emotional range that Grant and Roberts cover in their duet is so satisfying, all the way from tense arguments to full-bellied laughs, that it's a shame when the script relies on thin devices and obvious punchlines inherited from every other romantic comedy, particularly Four Weddings. William's sister Honey and ex-flame Bella are only a shade or two altered from Hugh Grant's flatmate Charlotte and almost-flame Fiona from the earlier film. In neither case does the comparison favor Notting Hill. Emma Chambers plays Honey's daftness straight to the rafters, and Gina McKee, despite an acute performance as the disabled Bella, is saddled with a jarring moment at the picture's end when this soft-spoken woman vents her moral outrage at the wheelchair-unfriendly world, all for the coy purpose of bringing the star couple back together.

I was sad to see McKee craft such a delicate character only to have the writer transform her into a flimsy social protest. Even that eleventh-hour reversal is preferable, however, to any single scene featuring Spike, William's implausibly and insensibly grotesque roommate. Did someone suggest to Richard Curtis that his movie was incomplete without body-odor jokes? Spike is emodied in all his disheveled horror by Rhys Ifans, who moped all the way through the dreadful Dancing at Lughnasa and here achieves vitality only as a scrawny but equally noxious Chris Farley disciple. Casting directors, break out your blacklists. The only person who benefits from Ifans' shameless hysteria is The Phantom Menace's Jar Jar Binks, who no longer stands unchallenged as the summer's most irritating character.

Thankfully, Grant and Roberts stride confidently over all the pitfalls strewn at different points through the script. They even survive a remarkably wrong-headed ending; suffice it to say that if Anna Scott really does hate the publicizing of her private life above all else, then her response to William's climactic act of "romance" should be exactly the opposite of what it is. These mistakes hardly matter. A movie as deftly and delicately played as Notting Hill—the rare romantic comedy that actually achieves both romance and comedy—has a lot of room for error. The laughs, the sadness, and the two main characters all seem real, even when other details strain our patience or credibility. Notting Hill never quite exhilarates, but it endears and entertains, with genuine warmth and grace. B

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Julia Roberts
Best Actor (Musical/Comedy): Hugh Grant

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