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'Notting' Doing, Perfectly

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 1999

  Movie Critic

Notting Hill
Acting up: Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts charmingly play themselves. (Universal)

Roger Michell
Julia Roberts;
Hugh Grant;
Alec Baldwin;
Emma Chambers;
Hugh Bonneville;
Tim McInnerny;
Gina McKee;
Rhys Ifans
Running Time:
2 hours, 4 minutes
Sexual innuendo and profanity
Sometimes the oldest stories are the best stories. Take "Notting Hill," for example: It's that Paleolithic wheezer, the boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl thing. Wrinkle: Girl (Julia Roberts) is a movie star; boy (Hugh Grant) is not.

Result: fabulous.

The film represents the good news that even as the delicate genre of romantic comedy veers toward the straits of destruction, some people still remember how to do it. It has become barely see-worthy under idiots who have altered the formula to boy-gets-girl, often early and in great anatomical detail. But screenwriter Richard Curtis and director Roger Michell sail this fragile craft away from carnal realism on effervescent zephyrs of more properly romantic emotions: longing, yearning, dreaming and desiring.

That means – let's state it up front – that this is an MBNN movie: that is, Main Babe Not Naked. In fact, it's even an NBN (No Babe Naked) movie. A few chaste kisses and the suggestion of post-connubial bliss in the old language of high Hollywood symbolism (rumpled hair, half-open shirt, the glow – and that's just him!). No sweating, moaning, stroking, licking, tonguing or probes of any other sort.

And anyway, who would want to see Julia Roberts or Hugh Grant naked? Good grief, what a revolting idea! They're too cute. If you root them in the physical, if they become mere bodies and not idealized souls, they lose the charm of their visual perfection. And that is considerable: Hers is a friendly beauty (she's the only beautiful woman in the world most men wouldn't be afraid to ask out), while his utter, milky cuddlesomeness is a subject upon which most women will yap and coo for hours. He's a beloved teddy bear in human flesh. He's Hugh-the-Pooh.

As Curtis's script sets it up, this most beautiful but least vain of men is William Thacker, a somewhat sad-sack bookstore owner in London's funkily fashionable Notting Hill neighborhood. He's a hurtin' ballplayer because his wife left him some years back for somebody who looked like Harrison Ford. Hugh Grant for Harrison Ford? I don't think so; still, that's the conceit upon which the film is built, the idea that Grant is some kind of regular-guy loser.

One day, in sunglasses and frumpy frock, who should enter but the world's most beautiful woman and most fabulously successful movie star, Anna Scott (Roberts). Her presence reduces William to a blubbering hulk of self-conscious dithering. Another movie myth: Women prefer self-deprecating schlubs who fumble, stammer and gasp. They don't like self-confident, bravado-empowered high achievers at all. It's the Woody Allen delusion, endlessly helpful in movies, utterly fraudulent in real life.

But what makes this fabrication work is that the two have chemistry. What is chemistry? I don't know. Nobody knows. Chemists don't know. Producers, writers and directors know even less. Critics know least of all. But have it they do: instant rapport, an ease in each other's presence and the feeling that the exposure to the other liberates the self to be the best version of itself, which is indeed what happens in the film, as it showcases each of them perfectly.

The film then chronicles the ups and downs of the relationship and the clash of cultures necessarily involved. She's from international filmdom; he's from Nowheresville. She hasn't heard the word "no" in 10 years; he hasn't heard the word "yes" in the same amount of time. She's used to champagne; he's used to that warmish swill the Brits think is beer.

It takes her into his happily dysfunctional set of relatives (much like the set of friends Grant sported in "Four Weddings and a Funeral," which Curtis also wrote). And it takes him into her dreariest reality, a press junket, where stars and scribes are mated lovelessly in hotel suites, each pretending to care about the other and communicating in a language so brutally lame and pointless that it boggles not merely the brain but also the soul. The film's observation of these ordeals by banality is quite acute, from the brittle energy of the overly peppy girl flack to the earnestness of the younger journalists who haven't seen through it yet to the dolor of the old salts, all seemingly frozen in an aspic of utter weirdness.

And – here's a rarity – so well structured is the script that Curtis doesn't merely evoke the junket; he uses it. He bends its plot around so the movie climaxes at such an event as well, and our hero and heroine communicate in a language that plays off the lingo of such events. It pays off, in other words – a lost art in moviemaking these days.

But the movie is so smart that it toys with each star's image. Both are playing slightly idealized versions of themselves. Roberts, after all, is the world's most successful female star, and Grant, after all, is a man with a tendency toward the self-destructive, if Divinely inspired, impulse. In fact, with disheveled hair, cheesy striped shirt, doe-in-the-glare-of-headlights stare and all, he resembles his own famous mug shot much more than he does Elizabeth Hurley's dashing beau.

So the film has this weird postmodernist taint: It has a self-aware script that cleverly plays off the reality of its own cast and their famous real-life contretemps. It's smart and knowing. And finally, it's a RWWRC movie. That's a Really Well-Written Romantic Comedy.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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