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Notting Hill


June 1, 1999
by Dan Lybarger
Originally appeared in  Pitch Weekly. ........................................................................................................

While it may be set in a real London neighborhood, Notting Hill is often as fanciful as a good Star Wars movie. In a smaller and more intimate way, it can also be just as enchanting.

Actor Hugh Grant and screenwriter William Curtis (both of Four Weddings and a Funeral) don't offer anything they haven't done before, but both are in solid form. This time around, Grant plays William Thacker, an Englishman with plenty of reasons to be gloomy. His wife has dumped him, his travel bookstore attracts more shoplifters than customers and he is afflicted with Spike (Rhys Ifans from Twin Town), the world's worst flat mate. Spike is a vulgar Welshman who looks aghast when William requests that he write down any phone messages.

Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant in Notting Hill
Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant in Notting Hill.
1999 Universal Pictures, used by permission.


William's melancholy starts to vanish when American movie star Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) wanders into his shop. Taken with his nervous but genuine manner, she starts setting up secret encounters with him. The two quickly become infatuated with each other. Unfortunately, there are dozens of obstacles for their relationship. Her fame makes any sort of intimate encounter risky, and William gets the nagging feeling that he's little more than a goddess' plaything.

While the outcome of William and Anna's pairing is predictable, the fun of Notting Hill is seeing how Curtis and director Roger Michell (Persuasion) get there. A decent comedy usually has one or two memorable gags or one-liners. Notting Hill has dozens. In particular, a scene where William tries to pass himself as a reporter in order to get closer to Anna is a scream. It's hard not to love a scene when a movie fan quizzes Anna about films she's had nothing to do with. One could almost fault Curtis for sacrificing credibility for shtick. Fortunately, by the time an event seems just a little preposterous, Curtis finds another choice joke.

A fine cast certainly helps make up for gaps in Michell's pacing. Grant has done the befuddled Brit routine before, and Roberts could be accused of merely playing herself. Nonetheless, both approach their roles with gusto. But the more important pairing is Grant and Curtis. They make a great team because much of the joy of their collaborations is watching Grant trying in vain to keep his composure as the Curtis-scripted chaos around him increases.

The supporting players are top notch, and Ifans steals just about every scene he occupies. Simply looking at him invokes laughter. (It might have something to do with his wardrobe of hilariously vulgar T-shirts.) With only a smirk or a twist of his head, he can make one's side ache.

Notting Hill
will never be praised for its gritty realism, but it's hard not to like a movie that flaunts its whimsical intentions so well. (PG-13)

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