Notting Hill (review)

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Boy Meets Star

“I’m just a girl,” says Julia Roberts, all lip-quivery and dewy-eyed, standing before a befuddled Hugh Grant, “standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.”

As Bill the Cat would have said, Ack! That line — inspiring cringes in me from the moment I saw it in the preview for Notting Hill — perfectly encapsulates everything that’s wrong with this movie: inane dialogue spoken by cardboard characters thrown together and forced to stay together by mere plot convenience.
There’s a delightful British character comedy buried within Notting Hill, which isn’t surprising: It’s written by Richard Curtis, who was one of the creators of the simply brilliant Blackadder and Bean television series (he also wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral). Okay, one must suffer through Hugh Grant (Mickey Blue Eyes) playing himself yet again — his travel-bookstore owner William Thacker is the same stuttering, stumbling, twitchy, overly blinky gosh-darn English everyguy that Grant has patented. But around him is a wonderfully quirky group of friends: his hilariously skanky Welsh roommate, Spike (Rhys Ifans) (“there’s no excuse for him,” William says); his sister Honey (Emma Chambers), who’s an excitable bundle of bubbliness that never becomes grating; and most interesting of all, William’s ex-girlfriend Bella (Gina McKee), now married to his best friend Max (He Who Can Do No Wrong, Tim McInnerny: Fairy Tale: A True Story). Max and Bella have the kind of complicated, intriguing relationship that made me wish they were the focus of the film.

Alas, America’s alleged sweetheart has been imperfectly grafted into what could have been an offbeat comedy. Julia Roberts (My Best Friend’s Wedding, Conspiracy Theory) also plays herself as Anna Scott, the world’s biggest movie star. No other actress could have played this role, but that’s not quite a compliment to Roberts — the character of Anna is so underdeveloped that Roberts has no choice but to play herself. Notting Hill opens with a montage of paparazzi footage of the famous actress, but it’s impossible to tell if she’s meant to be Anna or if the director, Roger Michell, just picked up some coverage of Roberts from Entertainment Tonight.

In a conceit unlikely even for a romantic comedy, Anna Scott, in London to promote her new movie, pops into William’s store to buy a book and leaves. Later, she literally runs into William on the streets of Notting Hill — a bohemian London neighborhood — where he spills orange juice all over her. He coaxes her into his house nearby to clean up, which she reluctantly does. And as she’s leaving, she kisses him, for no reason other than to jumpstart the story and allow her to later wander in and out of William’s life when it’s convenient for her and for the plot. Indeed, improbable contrivances are the only way for an ordinary, bookish guy to keep running into the world’s biggest movie star.

As is not unusual for typical Roberts roles, Anna is not a particularly nice person (how all her unpleasant characters have earned her the love and devotion of movie fans is beyond me). Anna is just as self-involved and boring as you’d expect a huge movie star to be. William falls hopelessly in love with her — apparently only because she smiles a lot and looks luminous, but I guess that’s all movie stars really need — but she has little regard for his feelings, showing up on his doorstep six months after she stormed out of his house when she needs a place to hide from the press being the most egregious example of her selfishness.

I have to give Roberts credit for being willing to poke fun at herself, though. The best scene in the film involves a dinner party at which William, Anna, and his friends tell their sad tales in an attempt to win the last dessert brownie. Anna reveals that she’s been dieting since she was 19 and so has been “hungry for a decade” and that someday her looks will go and everyone will “discover I can’t act.” We also get to see a clip of one of Anna’s films: The terrible, awkwardly acted scene from Gramercy Park, set in the classy New York City neighborhood, reads like Notting Hill‘s reference to itself.

Still, I’d have preferred to see that much more interesting movie Richard Curtis was obviously trying to write, the one that didn’t require the world biggest movie star on the marquee. That one wouldn’t have broken $100 million at the box office, though, which is why that version of the script is languishing in a desk drawer somewhere.

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