"Notting Hill"

Julia Roberts plays a superstar; Hugh Grant plays a kicked puppy. Our critic plays dead.

Published May 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Hugh Grant probably knows how to stand up straight. But you'd never know it. He's become one of those actors who's all shambling self-caricature, from his twinkly crow's feet to the time-lapsed half century it takes him to actually get one of his lines out, particularly when he's playing opposite a beautiful woman. It's gotten to the point where his self-deprecation is almost a passive-aggressive demand: "Love me, love my forelock," he pleads, in the way he turns on that boyish grin, or the way he bobbles his head and stutters when he wants to convey that his character is feeling uncomfortable, which seems to be about 99 percent of the time.

What's maddening about Grant is that he just never cuts the crap. It seems eons ago that he showed all the marks of being an engaging and sharp actor -- in Roman Polanski's 1992 "Bitter Moon," he played up that hangdog English boyishness with a delectable craftiness. But by the time of "Four Weddings and a Funeral," he'd switched to a more straightforward, dull, crumpled-corduroy acting style, and it was already beginning to feel saggy around the seat. Now, in "Notting Hill" -- its script by "Four Weddings" screenwriter Richard Curtis -- he's reached a new low. Why bother to play a character when you can just ape a stereotype? Here he's the cutie-pie English guy who'd just love to shag the girl but doesn't dare insult her by actually wooing her, preferring to sniff and shuffle around like a kicked dog. It's a petting-zoo version of manhood (and I'm not talking about the good kind of petting) made even more insulting by the fact that it trades on all the stock American views of British men. Hugh Grant's William Thacker is less a shy guy who happens to be English than he is Hugh Grant's version of what a shy English guy should be like.

Grant's performance stands as an emblem of what's wrong with "Notting Hill": It's about how Americans want to see the English and their Englishness, polite and apologetic and sanitized, a cluster of charming people living over yonder in the land of cute phone booths. It's an English movie doing its best to masquerade as the shallowest kind of Hollywood romantic comedy, as if somewhere along the way someone had made a calculated supposition that would be the only kind of comedy American audiences would buy. The movie was filmed on location, but Notting Hill, a fashionable London neighborhood with a large West Indian population, looks spiffed up and ethnically homogenized. (And in real life, it's highly doubtful that a bookstore schlub like William Thacker would be able to afford a house in such a trendy and expensive neighborhood, anyway.)

The worst sin of all is that "Notting Hill" is deadly dull. Curtis substitutes paper-doll cutouts for characters, and Roger Michell's direction is so slack and static that every scene ambles interminably. The story offers no surprises: Julia Roberts plays Anna Scott, an outrageously successful and popular American movie actress who is somehow able to walk freely around one of the largest cities in the world (the one with the most vicious tabloid press) for three-fourths of the movie with nary a photographer, journalist or curiosity seeker in tow. But Anna's life is empty. How do we know this? We just know. When she happens to walk into William's small, failing travel bookstore, he's charmed by her immediately, but -- owing to his good English manners -- he doesn't let on that he knows who she is. A few minutes after she's left the store, he bumps into her on the street, spilling orange juice all over her white T-shirt. Blimey! Luckily, his house is just a few blocks away. She can change her clothes there and, possibly -- only if it's not too much trouble, really -- embark on a highly unlikely romance with a typical English sad-sack bumbler. Multiple trials and travails ensue -- when famous people collide with average Joes, that's bound to happen -- but love finally wins the day.

Barely. It's amazing that anyone can get up the spark to actually fall in love in "Notting Hill." Grant isn't the only somnambulist here. Julia Roberts plays an empty shell of Julia Roberts: Although she's luminously beautiful, whatever magic she had in "Pretty Woman" and "Mystic Pizza" has leaked away here. What's more, her character is written (and played) to be all edges and defense mechanisms. On some level, that's understandable, given how hard famous people have to work to protect their private lives. But Anna barely softens to room temperature, even in her private moments with William: She seems to consider it her birthright to dress him down for not being able to relate to all the tribulations that a famous actress must endure. For a star who's really supposed to be a regular, vulnerable girl underneath, she sure has a lot of Norma Desmond in her, and it doesn't become her at all.

With lead actors like that, "Notting Hill" doesn't need a cast of annoying supporting characters, but it's got them, probably because Curtis felt compelled to follow his "Four Weddings" formula: Take one confused central character, surround him with well-meaning friends who lavish him with advice and make sure everyone is paired off happily by the end. The worst of the gang is Emma Chambers as William's flighty sister Honey, whose whole performance seems to consist of popping her eyes as wide as she can. (Honey is obviously a rehash of Charlotte Coleman's character in "Four Weddings" -- the pal who falls for the big Texan -- but Chambers doesn't have even a tiny fraction of that actress's appeal.) Only Gina McKee, as Bella, an ex-girlfriend of William's who is now married to his best friend, stands out as special. Bella is confined to a wheelchair, and although the accident that put her there is briefly explained, the wheelchair doesn't end up being a major "feature" of the character.

Curtis, to his credit, is sensitive to those issues without bending over backward to make a point. (In "Four Weddings" he wrote a similarly fleshed-out, if minor, character, whose deafness was only one element of his makeup instead of his single most significant trait.) McKee, with her fetchingly angular jawline and dark, sparkling eyes, is the only actor in "Notting Hill" who's able to give her character any vibrancy. That's especially interesting, considering that generally "the character in a wheelchair" is most likely to be the stereotypical symbol of crushed hope, fighting spirit, what have you. But McKee doesn't let you draw any easy conclusions about her character. When she's on-screen, you feel there's a reason to watch closely. That's something you can't say about the duo of Grant and Roberts, supposedly the movie's charismatic center. The appeal of warm beer would probably be easier to explain.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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