NOTTING HILL (UK, 1999) **
In London's popular but now rather chic, fairly bohemian and pricey Notting Hill neighborhood (colorfulized for American consumption), William Thacker (Hugh Grant) owns and runs a bookstore specializing in travel publications, a small and modest shop that apparently is quite unprofitable. How it escapes bankruptcy is an unelucidated mystery. William also owns a small, highly messy house nearby. To make ends meet he has taken a tenant, Spike (Rhys Ifans), a Welshman of no known profession, and a total slob whose looks, appearance and ways are occasionally amusing but in fact way overdone in the film. The quiet, almost mousy William and the flamboyant Spike are pals, an odd couple whose relationship is underdone.
Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) is introduced by a blatant opening montage as the world's most famous movie star. In London to promote her latest film (a space opera), Anna, we vaguely sense, is taking a break from bodyguards, entourage and febrile masses of press-hounds. She more or less goes slumming on her own. When she enters William's store to browse, the owner is boyishly stunned, stupefied and tongue-tied. So is his sole employee, a gay fellow who, ignorant of film-buffness, lauds Anna for films in which she did not appear. An amusing touch, as is that of a book-thief caught by William.
So far, so fair. But predictability sets in, running 20 to 2 vs. verisimilitude. Anna leaves the booksellers'. Shaky William, trying to collect his spirits, goes out for orange juice --when a good stiff whiskey is called for. The moment he takes his paper cup in hand, I bet to myself "now he'll encounter Anna in the street and spill the o.j. on her." That's exactly what happens. She then accepts the apologetic William's offer to come to his house and clean up. Upon leaving, she--unpredictably--gives William a passionate French kiss, thereby stunning him as well as us, the viewers, and initiating a hesitant and improbable love affair.
Next comes a phone call from Anna (the message is garbled by Spike) inviting William to the Ritz Hotel. In another entertaining bit, William unwittingly crashes a press junket at the Ritz, is taken for a reporter from Horse and Hound, "interviews" Anna. The sequences are funny. Yet there comes a point where meeting cute, local color, British eccentricities, mild caricatures of showbiz Americans, and such become formulaic and overdone. Even more blatant is the feeling that Hugh Grant, his writer and his producer --all from Four Weddings and a Funeral-- are cannily but without much inspiration recycling that earlier film.
Anna is the third real love in William's life. The first, his wife, eventually took off with someone who looked like Harrison Ford. Number two was filched by his best friend, who married her. A year and a half before the film's action her legs were paralyzed in a car accident. It is to the house of that couple that William takes Anna to celebrate the birthday of his kooky sister Honey. And it is the husband and the wife in a wheelchair whose love gives the movie its only touching moments.
Meeting the hoi polloi, Anna tries to adjust to them and show her "human" side. The commingling of the celebrity and ordinary yet unusual people was infinitely better done by Frank Capra in You Can't Take it With You.
Anna and William go on a "romantic" walk, scale the walls of a private garden as photography piles on sentimentality. Then, boom! The camera starts moving upwards as it looks down on the lovers in the greenery. A jolt and a technical error after so many sensible, eye-level shots. You become aware that this is a movie, that there is a whole unseen crew manning a huge crane.
What follows is another date, spoiled by the sudden arrival of Anna's current (and fickle) boyfriend Alec Baldwin, who in a mildly funny fashion mistakes William for a waiter.
Eventually Anna joins William in his house, for a night of love that promises much but winds up as a morning-after catastrophe : thanks to Spike's babbling in the pub, a regiment of reporters and paparazzi shows up. A furious Anna leaves. This would be the end of the affair in real life, but since a happy ending is a must, it occurs when the star reappears in London a year later to hype her newest movie during a press conference at the Hotel Savoy. ( Equal Opportunity publicity to balance out the Ritz Hotel). There's a mad, Hollywoodish car ride followed by a peppy but fabricated reunion which, in the usual tacked-on style, culminates in a never-never coda.
While there are a few good moments in the film, its essential structure gets in the way, is needlessly stretched out, and rapidly becomes a dull Nodding Hill. Worse yet there is no passion between the principals at any time, indeed no electricity. Things move hesitantly. So do the script and the protagonists. Julia Roberts plays as if on cruise control, as a presence with little to do except being there. She reminds me of Dorothy Parker's judgment of an actress: "Miss X... ran the gamut of emotions from A to B."
Ms. Roberts's outrageously over-hype and salaries, the flood of publicity and fabricated praise, have gotten tiresome. I am also reminded of ancient Athens when the leader-statesman Aristides "The Just" was again running for high office. The equivalent of one of today's pollsters asked an Athenian commoner why the latter had voted against Aristides. "Do you have something against him?" "No" came the reply "but I'm sick and tired of hearing him referred to as The Just."
Droopy-eyed Hugh Grant, now 39, overkills his role by underplaying it with the spinal cord and the personality of a marshmallow, as an ever diffident, bumbler-fumbler who is also prone to agree with everything. Witness the record number of times he replies, responds or concludes with "Right" -- a word that does not even have an exclamation mark after it. Like everyone else in the cast, with the small exception of the married couple, all roles are sketchy, un-rounded and dimensionless.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in our times which are at odds with the romantic comedy genre. It has gone the way of black-and-white westerns. True romance is on the skids in these decades of serial relationships, marriages and divorces, including (and especially) those of Hollywood stars. Ms. Roberts is also a star within this trend. Not that the old Hollywood actors were monogamous saints, but in those days the studios which "owned them" kept down the lid of secrecy, exercised damage control over iffy activities. The latter did not become notorious, while today there's nothing hidden and nothing sacred in the media's Niagara.
The film is neither romantic nor comedic. The comic genre is also at the bottom of the totem pole. It has been eclipsed by TV, especially British series aired on PBS. Think of the successors to Monty Python, with their dominance of wit, farce, fine scripts and great acting: Fawlty Towers, Yes, Minister, Yes, Prime Minister, Mr. Bean, Blackadder, Thin Blue Line (the last three with Rowan Atkinson), As Time Goes By, Keeping Up Appearances, Waiting for God.
Or The Vicar of Dibley in which Emma Chambers is superb as the deliciously dim Alice. In Notting Hill she appears as William's sister Honey, is a grating presence, and proves again that performers are only as good as their texts and direction. Along the same lines,, in the 1997 feature Bean, is far inferior to his TV episodes. The same goes for John Clues, in the 1999 remake of The Out-Of-Towners.
Television is not always the idiot box. Film is increasingly the idiot