"Notting Hill" Review
© 1999 Fontaine L.

"Surreal, but nice."

Coincidentally, this key phrase in the movie also sums up the entire film. The whole thing seems like a surreal dream. A nice, surreal dream (has the dead horse been beaten enough yet?). Let's face it, the plot is ludicrous. Almost as ludicrous, as, say, a prostitute falling in love with her client. Not that there is anything wrong with that. In a season dominated by FX-laden blockbusters like Episode I, "The Mummy," and "The Matrix," "Notting Hill" will provide a welcome escape into fairy tale romance that the inner girl (okay, inner boy too) in us all craves. It's a movie for everyone who's ever been starstruck.

Despite its overall success, the film is uneven at places. From the very beginning, awkward editing and abuse of rock music (a sadly common event in the MTV era) threaten to eclipse the atmosphere, but eventually the film picks up its own lighthearted yet slightly bittersweet pace. The selected soundtrack hits and misses, and the score is often too cutesy and recycled (not only so, but cued at similar scenes), but at dramatic intervals the swelling music is quite effective. The movie moves along at a fairly brisk place, but it does not escape lagging in a few places (discussed later). The romance between Anna and William seems forced at first because of the very rapidity with which it develops, but this becomes more acceptable as we grow accustomed to the film's wonderland atmosphere.

While it is a romantic comedy (let's make that Comedy with a capital C), it does not reduce secondary characters into two-dimensional cardboard; rather, it puts them into good use. Each secondary character, from leading man William Thacker's (what, is this supposed to allude to Will M. Thackeray?) (played by Hugh Grant) eccentric circle of family and friends to Alec Baldwin's suprising cameo as Roberts' insensitive boyfriend, has an interesting characteristic of his own. A standout is Thacker's grossly (and I mean that literally) inappropriate roommate Spike, whose idiosyncracies bring comic relief in a bold way (read my lips: butt cheeks) that not many romantic comedies of this sort dare do. Another form of humor I rather appreciated were the industry in-jokes (Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Demi Moore). Sadly, they could've used this form of humor in many other places and given the film a real punch.

"Notting Hill" brings back the Julia Roberts of "Pretty Woman": the pretty girl with the big grin and infectious laugh. Roberts has never been an exceptional actress, but she's more than perfect (and just a bit self-deprecating) in her role as mega movie star Anna Scott. Glamorous and graceful when she's in the movie star mode, Roberts also effectively morphs into the girl-next-door mode that was her claim to fame in "Pretty Woman" and subsequent films. What's interesting about the casting of Roberts is the apparent parallels between Roberts and the character she plays and Roberts' willingness to poke fun at this structure. Roberts and Scott both became famous at a young age, both are under intense public scrutiny whenever they do something as mundane as hold hands with a boyfriend. The irony comes when we see the (un)intentional parallels. Scott describes herself as a bad actress with a pretty face that everyone will forget ten years from now, just as critics everywhere love to proclaim Roberts as just another long-legged beauty who can't act. Well I'll give her this: she does a great job of acting like a bad actress in the pseudo-film clips.

Speaking of self-deprecation, we come to the master himself, Hugh Grant, most known for "Four Weddings and a Funeral," Elizabeth Hurley, and the Divine Brown scandal. Here again we have evidence of masterful casting. While Grant may look perpetually lost in other films, his shy boy stuttering comedy and unaffected charm is perfect for his role as the everyday man William Thacker. There's even a sly reference to his scandal thrown in.

Part of what makes the film different is its poignancy amidst the lovey-dovey stuff and comedy. There's just a subtle hint of the common man versus the unreachable: in this case, the common citizen versus Hollywood superstar. Thacker's friends often get together and lament about their lives, envious of Anna and treating her like a walking Madonna, trying desperately to impress her; while Anna in reality leads a glamorous but lonely life in the spotlight. Because of the similarities between Roberts and Anna, we feel as if we've been given a secret peak into Roberts' private life. While, for all I know, Roberts is most likely drastically different from Anna, the film also points out the sometimes inhumane treatment most celebrities have to endure. Its ingenuity is it simultaneously makes fun of the celebrities' complaints by placing their troubles alongside a woman bound to a wheelchair for life, a failed entrepreneur, a fired stockbroker, a romantic failure, and starving refugees.

The film would have been immensely better if it had been, say, half an hour shorter; toward the end you keep thinking it's going to end, but it just keeps dragging on (the Death Flaw for romantic movies, in my opinion). It is times like these when the quiet, snippy, decidedly British banter between the characters seem lifeless and forced. Other times they are witty and engaging. I suppose this is worth it in a way since it all builds up to a wonderfully fluffy happy ending that is bound to send sensitive viewers everywhere looking for their hankies and Kleenexes. "Notting" made me laugh and cry; it entertained me but it didn't try too hard to be sweet and cute. There's no better way to spend a Friday evening.

"Hello! You're in a wheelchair!"

Rating: B (First viewing, 5/28/99)