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'Notting Hill': Easy to Love

By Desson Howe
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
Contains sexual situations and some strong language
I just spent the night with Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, and I still love myself in the morning.

The movie's called "Notting Hill" and it's about nothing more or less than Boy meets Girl. But there's something different and special about this romantic comedy. What is it?

Movie stars – especially these two – are always playing lovers. They see someone across the room, that's it. A little bit of jokey bantering, flirting and fighting, then they're knotsville – married and processed. Love affairs in the movies aren't built for surprise.

But Grant and Roberts build an exciting fire between them, dealing in their inimitably charming way with all those extinguishing factors, such as social differences, bad timing and meddlesome roommates.

The surprise factor in "Notting Hill" amounts to personality: The more you learn about them, the more you see how they react to each other, the better it gets. In the end, the movie works because Grant and Roberts are disarming geniuses at playing themselves – and then some.

William Thacker (Grant), the reserved, shy owner of a London travel bookstore, looks up from his account books one day to see Anna Scott (Roberts), the world's most famous movie star.

Her face adorns every bus and newsstand in London. People go slack-jawed when they see her. In other words, we're talking about Julia Roberts, right there, browsing through his bookstore!

William's not much of a moviegoer, but you can see he's terribly taken by Ms. Scott – whom he does recognize, to his credit. She's hidden in beret, sunglasses and star attitude.

But William is very polite and proper about the whole thing, being English. He issues those endearing, Grantian mumblings and bumblings as he recommends one travel book over the other. She chooses the other, of course.

When William tells friends and family about this encounter with fame – which just happened to take place when his bookstore colleague had stepped out for a minute – they can't believe it.

But what could possibly happen between a megastar who's just passing through London and a reticent bookworm who's still recovering from a divorce and sharing a flat with the world's most embarrassing roommate (Rhys Ifans)? What would be the chances of him bumping into her, accidentally spilling a drink over her, rushing her to his Notting Hill flat to clean up and . . . ?

Could never happen.

The movie marks a reunion for Grant, screenwriter Richard Curtis and producer Duncan Kenworthy, who worked together on a little thing called "Four Weddings and a Funeral."

Indeed, the similarities between the two movies are inescapable: Grant pines, once again, for an elusive woman who is forever appearing and reappearing in his life. But he doesn't wear so much wedding gear this time. And there's a different, sweeter fabric to this movie, thanks to director Roger Michell, who also made "Persuasion," possibly the best Jane Austen romance on screen.

It's not just the headliners who bring us into this movie. Screenwriter Curtis has painted a charming, delicately tinted, extended family life around William.

Sure, they all seem to have been reculled from the guest list of "Four Weddings and a Funeral." But they're all endearing and spirited, including Emma Chambers as William's cute, slightly barmy sister; Hugh Bonneville as an unsuccessful stockbroker who doesn't recognize Anna Scott in one amusing dinner conversation; and Tim McInnerny and Gina McKee as a happily married twosome and William's indefatigable support group.

In the comic relief corner, Ifans is hilarious as Grant's roommate, Spike, a gangly Welshman with a heart of gold, no sense of tact and most definitely one screw loose. It isn't just Grant and Roberts angling for that first kiss that makes "Notting Hill" an affair to remember. It's the sight of Spike standing in his standard-issue white underpants and flexing what he considers to be a stunning body.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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