Friday May 28, 1999
"What am I doing with you?" Julia Roberts' Anna Scott--a.k.a. "Hollywood's biggest star by far"--says to Hugh Grant's William Thacker, the shambling and seemingly ordinary bookstore owner she is in the process of being smitten with. But if Anna doesn't know, everyone watching "Notting Hill" surely will.
For if all romance is a process of recognition, of noticing someone else who notices us, movie romance ups the ante. No matter who they're pretending to be on screen, even if they're royalty and regular people (like Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in "Roman Holiday" or even Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford in "Star Wars"), it's the first law of cinema that stars recognize each other and find a way to be together, no matter what the circumstances.
A collateral descendant of "Four Weddings and a Funeral," the film that made Grant an international star, "Notting Hill" is a smartly cast and consistently amusing romantic comedy. As with its predecessor, the key to this film's considerable charm is the script by Richard Curtis, his first solo credit (he collaborated on "Bean") since "Four Weddings."
The idea (and Curtis says it came from his fantasizing about turning up at dinner with friends with someone like Madonna or Princess Diana) is that megastar Anna wanders by chance into William's travel bookstore in the happening Notting Hill section of London. He shyly recommends a book ("I think the man who wrote it has actually been to Turkey"); she ignores him and buys another, and in that brief moment the scent of mutual attraction, faint but unmistakable, passes between them.
Naturally, there are problems, a whole caboose of them, ranging from his deranged Welsh roommate Spike (a zany Rhys Ifans) to a gap in their fame and status so considerable that neither one can believe at first what is happening to them.
Given how familiar and predictable this scenario is, it's much to Curtis' credit that he regularly surprises us with either a situation or a line of dialogue that creates contagious laughter. Like when William spills orange juice on Anna in a classic cute-meet situation and promises to have her quickly "back on the street again, but not in the prostitute sense."
Taking advantage of Anna's star-of-stars status, some of "Notting Hill's" funniest situations deal with the movie business, like Anna discussing the ins and outs of her contract's nudity clause or William helping her run her lines in a script that smoothly skewers "Armageddon" and its ilk.
Best of all is an extended sequence in which William, mistaken for "Britain's preeminent equestrian journalist" on assignment from Hare and Hounds, participates in a press junket for Anna's latest film and finds out firsthand (as if he didn't already know) just how inane those Q&A sessions can be.
Speaking of Hollywood, one obstacle "Notting Hill" has had to clear that "Four Weddings" wasn't burdened with is its status as a mixed marriage of character-intensive contemporary British comedy with mainstream studio moviemaking.
The Hollywood influence is visible in the film's intrusive "get in the mood or else" Trevor Jones music and its use of sandwich board songs like "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" and "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone." And it shows up in the way "Notting Hill" occasionally gives in to more sentiment than the moment really demands.
But under the able direction of Roger Michell (whose version of "Persuasion" is close to the best of the recent Jane Austen adaptations), "Notting Hill" has the enviable ability to right itself before it gets too far gone, to follow a borderline saccharine moment with just the right biting line or tart scenario.
It also helps to have the right actors delivering those lines, and Grant especially has a delightful time with Curtis' arch dialogue. Convincing as a bumbling sophisticate, a hangdog Cary Grant, this Grant has such an expert way with words that it's no surprise that Anna is taken with him despite herself.
While Grant wins us over immediately, Roberts has a tougher time. This is partly because, despite the actress' insistence that a picture about heroic nuns ministering to lepers in equatorial Africa couldn't be further from her life than this one, "Notting Hill" does seem within at least shouting distance of a self-portrait.
Finally, though, it is the connection--acknowledged or not--that Roberts makes with this material that make her portrait surprisingly effective. To see her in moments of diva pique, to hear her forlorn tone of voice when she talks about how "every time your heart gets broken newspapers splash it around like it's entertainment," is to see the genuine vulnerability without which her character would not be believable or sympathetic.
The inevitable compromises made with Hollywood make "Notting Hill" creak around the edges in a way "Four Weddings" did not, but the film's romantic core is impervious to problems. Roberts and Grant are the most glowing of stars here, the people who keep us alive in the darkness, and we want so much for their characters to be happy in their turn.
Notting Hill, 1999. PG-13 for sexual content and brief strong language. Polygram Films presents in association with Working Title Films from Notting Hill Pictures a Duncan Kenworthy production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Roger Michell. Producer Duncan Kenworthy. Executive producers Tim Bevan, Richard Curtis, Eric Fellner. Screenplay by Richard Curtis. Cinematographer Michael Coulter. Editor Nick Moore. Costumes Shuna Harwood. Music Trevor Jones. Production design Stuart Craig. Art directors Andrew Ackland-Snow, David Allday. Set decorator Stephenie McMillan. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes. Julia Roberts as Anna Scott. Hugh Grant as William Thacker. Hugh Bonneville as Bernie. Emma Chambers as Honey. James Dreyfus as Martin. Rhys Ifans as Spike. Tim McInnerny as Max. Gina McKee as Bella.