Notting Hill - 28501 Bytes
* 1/2 Stars
(UK 1999) Rated PG-13

Julia Roberts, Hugh Grant, Rhys Ifans

Directed by Roger Michell

Writing credits: Richard Curtis

Universal Pictures * 123 minutes

Somewhere out there is an interesting picture waiting to be made about what happens when the Biggest Celebrity in the World falls in love with an ordinary schmuck. NOTTING HILL is not that picture. In fact, I can't recall the last time I've had the privilege to view a more cynical, manipulative, derivative, cliche-ridden piece of drivel. A warning is warranted to those men who trade action movies for "chick flicks" with their Significant Others: No action movie in the world is going to be worth sitting through this.

Somewhere out there is an evil computer programmer -- but not the Pentagon hackers we read about and fear. No, this guy is out there, probably in L.A., fueled by cocaine, air-kisses and alfalfa sprouts, and he has written an application so nefarious it defies comprehension. Its function is take hackneyed plot devices and spit out screenplays. NOTTING HILL was written using this application, I'm sure.

NOTTING HILL was first touted as the "sequel" to 1994's hugely successful FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, because it reunites that film's screenwriter (Richard Curtis) and producer (Duncan Kenworthy), along with the film's leading man. That film, a light, charming romantic comedy, starred a then up-and-coming Hugh Grant, long before Divine Brown, and certainly long before his aw-shucks tics and twitching became schtick. It's impossible to capture lightning in a bottle twice, and while this film tries mightily, it fails miserably.

julia.jpg - 10791 BytesThis time around, Grant's leading lady is Julia Roberts, as Anna Scott, the world’s most famous movie star. Grant is William Thacker, who somehow manages to earn a living owning a travel bookstore, while owning a quaint little row house in the bohemian Notting Hill section of London. We are also expected to believe that his wife left him for a man who looks like Harrison Ford (perhaps because the latter is NOT trying to be the Oldest Living Adorable Little Boy), and that he actually has brought into his home an improbably "colorful" flatmate, Spike (Rhys Ifans).

Inevitably, Anna appears in William's bookstore, they Meet Cute, Get Together, Fall Apart, Get Together, Fall Apart Again, and ultimately Live Happily Ever After.

I've just saved you eight dollars, because now you've seen the movie. In fact, you've already seen it dozens of times; you didn't need me to spoil it for you.

I knew I was in trouble when the film opened with a montage of Julia Roberts movie star photographs and a soundtrack-ready rendition of Charles Aznavour's She, even if it IS sung by Elvis Costello. As my stomach began churning, the inevitable Our Hero voice over began, introducing the story.

hugh.jpg - 15517 BytesAs expected, everything about the Notting Hill depicted in the film is adorable. It is full of adorable storefronts and adorable people exchanging adorable witty repartee. In Movieland Notting Hill, even the shoplifters are clever and urbane. In the midst of all this adorableness is adorable William Thacker's adorable travel bookstore, an appropriately chaotic-yet-charming place, complete with eccentric bookstore assistant (James Dreyfus, who could have made this role into a film-stealing Bill Murray turn with a minimum of effort, but chose not to). In fact, it occurred to me that Thacker could run off with the Meg Ryan character from YOU'VE GOT MAIL. They could live forever in Aging Cute Person Hell, and save us all a lot of trouble.

Almost every moment in this film either rings hopelessly false or is utterly hackneyed. When Anna Scott's enters into William's bookstore -- and his life -- she is photographed as a background blur, with the inevitable sappy musical crescendo, indicating that True Love is about to occur. When we see clips of Anna's films and scenes of her rehearsing with William, it appears that her career seems to consist largely of Grade B science-fiction films. This may make her a $15 million star, but hardly one for whom a Henry James corset flick is a logical next step.

A scene in which William and Anna are in a restaurant overhearing a group of men discussing Anna's career is just not plausible. The premise is valid and laudable -- how DOES a star feel when overhearing a conversation about her? However, most men of my acquaintance, in the extremely unlikely event that they would even have a detailed discussion about an actress over lunch, would usually be ruminating on another kind of body other than her body of work.

Probably the most egregious cliche, however, is William's walk through Notting Hill after Anna returns to the United States. As Bill Withers' Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone plays in the background (as if you needed a soundtrack-ready song to tell you what's going on), the seasons actually change during this walk sequence, indicating the passage of time. This scene could not be worse if the director had decided to show pages being ripped from a calendar.

No film is totally devoid of redeeming value, however, and NOTTING HILL happens to be distinguished by a number of wonderful supporting performance that far outshine those of the lead actors.spike.jpg - 12094 Bytes Rhys Ifans is already receiving accolades for his performance as the bizarre roommate, Spike. A gangly stork of a man who resembles the late Graham Chapman in one of his more bizarre incarnations, Spike provides much needed comic relief, and indeed, originality. Spike is Bill Griffith's Zippy the Pinhead character come vividly to life. Emma Chambers is appropriately flaky as William's loopy sister, complete with Hugh Grant-style stuttering and tics.

Yet the standout performance, in my opinion, is Gina McKee as William's friend (and presumably ex-girlfriend) Bella. Confined to a wheelchair after an accident, McKee portrays a wheelchair-bound woman with sexuality, pathos and strength. It's a marvelously subtle performance that's breathtaking in its simplicity. McKee is definitely One to Watch. Tim McInnerny is also excellent as Bella's devoted (or is he?) husband Max.

The script is marvelously crisp and clever in places and heartbreakingly honest. A speech by Anna in which she bluntly explains the effort that goes into making her what she is, and how little she has to look forward to after her looks fade, is heartbreaking. Such gems are what make the overall triteness of the film and the cheap plot contrivances that much more infuriating. That the same screenwriter is also responsible for this line seen in all the trailers, "I'm just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her" is just incomprehensible. This statement becomes more painful every time I hear it, particularly when directed at a character portrayed by an actor who is pushing forty.

There is a wonderful movie in here screaming to get out, but instead, we see old, tired cliches, presented by proven box office commodities with limited talent, in a cynical effort to just make a buck off the Saturday night date crowd.

An interesting side note: In the closing credits, a credit for "Security for Julia Roberts provided by...." appears, indicating that NOTTING HILL undoubtedly resonated strongly with Ms. Roberts' own life.

NOTTING HILLofficial site

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Review text copyright © 1999 Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti is prohibited.

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