Maybe it's the damned blinking thing, because it's not simply the foppish hair and boyish face--or, for that matter, even the vaguely befuddled reticence and wry, self-abasing demeanor we Americans prefer to see in our Brits. It's got to be the blinking. That's what he does, almost all he does, and it must be some sort of twinkling trick, not unlike I Dream of Jeannie's genie casting her spell. How else to explain the fact that Hugh Grant, a man who never met the same role he didn't like over and over again, is one charming son of a bitch?
No wonder Elizabeth Hurley let slide that whole Los Angeles parked-car love affair with a call girl most Divine. Hugh Grant is indeed almost charming enough to make one completely forgive the weak-kneed celebrity wet-kiss that substitutes for romance in Notting Hill, the not-a-sequel-but-hopefully-it-feels-like-one from the writing-producing team responsible for 1994's surprise hit romantic comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral.
As in that film, Grant plays the perpetually fumbling hangdog Everybrit who has never quite found true love--but finally might in the guise of a darling American girl. Yet Notting Hill has grander ideas than Four Wedding's romance between two average folks (well--perfect, charming, well-scripted, and good-looking average folks). This time around, Grant is William Thacker, a proprietor of a rather unsuccessful travel bookstore in the hip and cosmopolitan section of West London known as Notting Hill.
William's the kind of swell guy who says "whoopsy daisy" when he slips up and mutters "bugger this" and "bugger that" when things really go wrong. The darling American girl just happens to be the biggest movie star in the world, Anna Scott, cast appropriately enough as the Pretty Woman herself, Julia Roberts. In fact, when Anna impetuously leaves him with a kiss and kindles a romance--poof!--out of thin air, Notting Hill proposes to be a sort of reverse Pretty Woman. This time around, the fairy tale deals with the common schlub (right, you bet) who finds his Princess Charming in a famous actress with a heart of gold--if only they can ever get the opportunity to have a normal relationship.
Much has been and will be made of how ironic it is that Julia Roberts may actually be playing herself, a $20-million-a-movie star hounded by a press and a public dying to know every detail about her love life, willing to pay big money to see her naked, then speculating aloud about whether her assets--especially her talent--are real. The fact that Grant, a man who has appeared in more tabloids than alien dieting secrets, plays her leading man is only more ironic icing on the cake. Only irony and Hollywood don't mix: Julia Roberts, as Anna, might as well be sitting down for a Vanity Fair interview and photo shoot as Julia Roberts. She brings nothing to the role besides her own star power, which isn't blinding enough to compensate for the film's lack of originality and warmth.
And when she does try to offer a peek beneath the surface image of The Movie Star, Roberts, as Anna, comes off as an utter bitch--at least that's the impression gleaned from scenes that don't involve musical interludes and fuzzy montages, and there are many. Anna jumps to conclusions, runs out on William at the slightest sign of trouble, lies to him about her personal life, and bad-mouths him to her co-workers--lovely gal all around. She boo-hoos about how tough it is to be a celebrity, then turns around and tells him that "the fame thing isn't real." She just wants to be a girl in love, but she keeps acting like a goddess who has come down to earth to slum with the mortals. Fact is, her behavior makes the romance all the more inexplicable.
Notting Hill never plays with its potential for satire; it barely even acknowledges it, preferring instead to go straight for the heart while bypassing the brain altogether. From the coincidental mishap in which Grant just happens to literally run into Roberts on the street--thus drenching her in orange juice, thereby giving them a chance to spend more time with each other--to the series of misunderstandings that keep pulling them apart, the film rarely veers too far from its amusing but rote romantic comedy conventions. It's a shame.
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The few send-ups the film does swing at are lobs at best, Mark McGwire batting-practice pitches launched out of the park. A cameo by Alec Baldwin as a snotty Hollywood hunk is good for a quick laugh, but offers nothing besides broad Saturday Night Live satire. A central set piece involving Grant crashing a press junket as a reporter for something called Horse and Hound magazine just so he can talk with Roberts' character is truly funny--as are his innocuous, banal questions ("Do you ride a horse?"). But those in the audience not privy to the ways and means of a press junket, where dead-eyed reporters suck from the movie-company teat and ask second-rate celebs the most kiss-ass sort of questions, may not fully appreciate the deadeye aim of the humor. And a conversation about a no-nudity clause in Anna's contract sets up a gag that never materializes. Imagine the snickers that would have erupted after hearing Julia Roberts say she won't do nude scenes and that she even has stunt-butt approval, only to cut to a post-love scene butt shot. Is it Julia's? Is it a body double's? No one would know, but it might elicit a few chuckles. Alas, it's not to be.
When it comes to issues of tabloid snoops and superstar nudity, the movie suddenly takes an all too serious tone, one befitting its female star's attempt to poke fun without, you know, making fun or having fun. At one point, the tabloids get a hold of nude pictures Anna sat for early in her career. Even worse, Anna complains to William, someone filmed the photo shoot so that it now looks as though she made a porn film. Pardon? Exactly what kind of a photo shoot was this? Inquiring minds want to know--well, every inquiring mind except William, who seems utterly oblivious to the whole star thing, the good, the bad, and the ugly side of fame (and the irony blows straight out the window). Never mind that during the first part of the film, the jokes stem from his close-knit set of friends "discovering" that he's dating a celebrity. Hey, William simply likes Anna for who she is. OK. Fine. But the question forever remains: Why?
The big romance here isn't between William and Anna; they're almost unnecessary, pretty people in a pretty movie about pretty much nothing. Rather, the love affair's between Hollywood and itself: Notting Hill offers another example of moviemakers consoling themselves about how tough it is to be famous while congratulating themselves on how down-to-earth they really are. The audience ends up acting just like William's friends, wanting the two star-crossed lovers to get together, but only because that's the way the fairy tale goes.
Directed by Roger Mitchell. Written by Richard Curtis. Starring Julia Roberts, Hugh Grant, Hugh Bonneville, Emma Chambers, James Dreyfus, and Rhys Ifans. Opens Friday.