While their careers are far from flagging, neither Julia Roberts nor Hugh
Grant have quite recaptured the heights of the projects that propelled them
to stardom. This has been especially the case with Grant, whose last
project, the 1996 medical thriller _Extreme_Measures_, found the actor
acquitting himself surprisingly well in a serious role, but it offered
little reminder of self-effacing British charms that broke him through in
1994's _Four_Weddings_and_a_Funeral_. Roberts, on the other hand, has had
(to put it lightly) her fair share of successes since 1990's
_Pretty_Woman_, but few of the hits she has had possessed the simple magic
of that modern-day romance classic that made her career--even her role in
1997's entertaining smash _My_Best_Friend's_Wedding_ had her stretch
somewhat, playing, to use the words of her character, "the bad guy" (albeit
a charming one). Roberts has always been best at being, as in
_Pretty_Woman_, a glowing presence--something she has never been content to
_Notting_Hill_, from two of Grant's _Four_Weddings_ collaborators, writer
Richard Curtis and producer Duncan Kenworthy (director Roger Michell is new
to the mix), casts the two likable stars in their well-trodden element. As
such, the film does not uncover any new talents that they might have buried
within, but it gives audiences exactly what they want from them--and in a
smartly written and wholly irresistible package.
Many stars have been accused of essentially playing themselves in film,
but never has that been more blatantly the case with Roberts's role in
_Notting_Hill_: that of Anna Scott, a world-famous movie star whose private
life is often fodder for the tabloids. (Further blurring the Julia/Anna
divide is the opening montage of red carpet arrival footage, most of it
culled from actual news coverage of Roberts at gala events.) This may reek
of shameless self-indulgence, but the movie star conceit allows Roberts to
poke fun at her image and, more effectively, enables Curtis to deftly let
off some pointed barbs at the Hollywood machine. One hilarious sequence
perfectly captures the often ridiculous nature of a press junket
(naturally, this section received the best response from the all-media
audience); and in one single, simple line, Curtis takes a stinging jab at
the writing-by-committee tactic so often used for so-called "blockbusters."
The main intent of _Notting_Hill_, however, is not satire but romance, and
Curtis and Michell have crafted a truly enchanting one. The premise is
pure fantasy: one day Anna walks into the travel book store of Notting Hill
(a neighborhood in London) resident William Thacker (Grant, comfortably
back in _Four_Weddings_ stammer mode), and in quick time this average joe
finds himself striking a friendship with the glam starlet that eventually
develops into something deeper--which, of course, leads to some problems
with anonymity. As far-fetched as the story is, it is done with such style
and grace--the latter especially the case with Roberts and Grant's
effortless rapport--that there is no difficulty in suspending disbelief.
While Roberts and Grant make an immensely appealing center, the characters
at the periphery provide memorable support. Emma Chambers, Hugh
Bonneville, Tim McInnerny, and Gina McKee are all given their individual
moments to shine as William's sister and close friends, respectively.
Likely to generate the most talk, though (aside from a funny surprise cameo
by a name star), is Rhys Ifans, a scene stealer William's disgusting slob
of a flatmate, Spike.
If there is a misstep made in _Notting_Hill_, it is the ending.
Admittedly a crowdpleaser, it's also so overdone as to be the only moment
in the movie that is far less than convincing. But by that point, Roberts,
Grant, and everyone and everything else will have so effortlessly endeared
the audience that such a complaint is moot. That one moment may ring
false, but what remains true throughout is the enrapturing spell this
sparkling entertainment casts upon the audience.