A rare case of an intelligent romantic comedyBy Fred Choi
ASSOCIATE ARTS EDITOR
Directed by Roger Michell
Written by Richard Curtis
With Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Rhys Ifans, Emma Chambers, Tim
McInnery, Gina McKee, Hugh Bonnevill
When discussing a romantic comedy, it is amusing to sit down, compile a list of the formulaic elements, and compare it to the list of non-formulaic elements. Although it is not a flawless method of determining which romantic comedy out of thousands is worth seeing, it does give a sense of the film’s originality. In the case of the new romantic comedy Notting Hill from the creators of Four Weddings and a Funeral (screenwriter Richard Curtis and producer Duncan Kenworthy), such an exercise would produce two lists of approximately the same length. In a genre that has seen such recent disappointments as You’ve Got Mail and that produces only a few excellent films every year out of many, such an accomplishment is noteworthy, but not singular.
Notting Hill is a typical tale of romance in adversity. Julia Roberts plays Anna Scott, “the world’s most famous movie star,” whose face can be seen on every magazine cover, newspaper, and bus. Hugh Grant is William Thacker, who owns a small and unprofitable travel bookstore. The movie begins on the fateful day when Anna wanders into William’s bookstore in Notting Hill. What immediately follows is a series of wonderfully awkward encounters and the expected budding of a romance.
Because the main ploy of Notting Hill is certainly nothing new, the movie sets itself up for all sorts of comparisons. The “Famous Girl Meets Regular Guy” and “Famous Guy Meets Regular Girl” formulae have already produced such films as The American President and the classic Audrey Hepburn/Gregory Peck romance Roman Holiday. Even though Notting Hill succeeds in entertaining nearly as well as most of them, it certainly doesn’t raise the ante.
The script is generally pleasing and includes the obligatory “falling in love” montages, the series of humorously incompatible blind dates, and a humorous sidekick who could never get a date if his life depended on it but dispenses advice anyway. This sidekick, played by the hilarious Welsh actor Rhys Ifans, steals quite a few scenes.
The success of romantic comedy relies heavily on its two leads, and Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant are a cute pair. Although Roberts’ part lacks depth and even much humor until almost the end of the film, and Grant’s part similarly limits his range of acting, both do well within the confines of their roles. On the other hand, Grant excels tremendously in his usual bumbling. He is full of sweet and unaffected charm and employs perfect comic timing, chattering on about asinine subjects ranging from books on Turkey to apricots and honey. The characters’ repartee is mostly amusing, and every once in a while it becomes really clever or poignant.
Richard Curtis’s script only occasionally rises above formula, but when it does, the results are astounding and memorable. An ordinary three-minute scene in which William searches frantically for his glasses for his date with Anna becomes one of the movie’s comic highlights.
And what could have been a dreary and painful scene in which Anna accompanies William to his sister’s birthday party is a visceral and hilariously nightmarish portrayal of a group of wonderful people at their absolute worst. The scene is made notable by a terrific supporting cast, comprised of Hugh Bonneville, Tim McInnerny, Emma Chambers, and the radiantly lovely Gina McKee. The scene’s juxtaposition of brute pathos and laughter, while somewhat incidental to the plot, was performed with impressive compassion and conviction, and I found it completely intriguing and novel.
Thanks to scenes like this one, Notting Hill, a predictable romantic comedy, becomes something rarer: an intelligent romantic comedy. It is moments like these that make Notting Hill, for all its predictability and lack of characterization, a movie worth seeing.