"Notting Hill" is being billed as a conventional love story between characters played by Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, but it's really a triangle consisting of Grant, Roberts and the camera that continually beckons and seduces her.
The relationship between Roberts and the camera is extraordinarily potent, and their love affair provides a super-charged undercurrent altogether appropriate to the context of stardom and the wages of fame in "Notting Hill." From the very first sequence, a series of staged and real-life paparazzi shots of Roberts in recent years, it's clear the camera, as surrogate for the star's millions of admirers, will give any human suitor a run for his money.
Luckily Grant is just the right actor to do this, with his shambling self-deprecation providing the perfect foil for Roberts' blinding wattage. Underplaying his role beneath his famously unruly forelock and dolorous eyes, Grant graciously allows Roberts and the camera to have a deliciously tantalizing romp for a couple of hours before claiming the happy conclusion that is his due at the end. Thus does "Notting Hill" serve up a frothily rich piece of cake, have it and eat it, too.
Grant plays William Thacker, the owner of a small travel bookshop in the Notting Hill section of London, whose lonely and uneventful existence is brightened one day by a visit from Anna Scott (Roberts), the world's most famous movie star. Anna makes her purchase -- after some heavy-duty eye contact -- and that would have been that, had William not decided to nip around the corner for some coffee. That errand will bring the two together again in a moment that clearly announces that filmgoers are now deep in movie fantasy-land, where they will happily stay while William and Anna pursue an unlikely romance.
"Notting Hill" was written by Richard Curtis, who wrote "Four Weddings and a Funeral," and again he sets up lots of obstacles in the couple's path. In Anna's case the chief obstacle is fame, and all the mistrust, intrusion and handling that goes along with it. In William's case it's his own diffident nature -- and a scraggly, rotten-toothed roommate named Spike (Rhys Ifans), whose heinous sartorial habits are only equaled by his lack of good sense.
Having made Grant a star in "Four Weddings and a Funeral," Curtis wisely sticks to that winning formula, surrounding the actor with a similar gaggle of well-meaning friends, sending him on a series of episodic encounters with the girl of his dreams, and never delving too deeply into his character or hers. Like the earlier film, "Notting Hill" depends on pheromones and raw sexual attraction to draw its protagonists together, leaving talk of things like shared principles and values for another day.
So it's not "Wings of Desire." But in its own purely escapist way "Notting Hill" is just as effective. Grant is ideally suited for the ingenue role of the commoner plucked from obscurity by a high-powered woman for a liaison; he plays William with a pleasing blend of self- effacing humor and quiet confidence. And Curtis exploits Grant's talent for comedy in his encounters with Spike and especially during a hilariously drawn-out press junket during which William is forced to impersonate a reporter for Horses & Hounds magazine. ("Is he your favorite Italian director?" he asks a pint-sized actress who recently worked with Leonardo Di Caprio.)
But this is Roberts' movie and once again she proves not only to be eminently watchable but a terrific actress. As difficult as it is to pull off, she succeeds in convincing filmgoers that Anna may not have it so good, even when she's pulling down $15 million a picture.
During a conversation with William's friends, in which they try to out-self-pity one another, her speech about plastic surgery and creeping middle age gives you the uncanny sense of art merging into life. (Indeed, the entire movie is a weirdly meta-level discussion of Roberts' and Grant's own rocky relationships with the press and their fans.)
Anna's problems may be those we'd all love to have, and the happy ending may strike a note of overkill. But thanks to Roberts' genuine performance, what might have been a disposable piece of fluff becomes a disposable piece of fluff the audience can care about.
Starring Julia Roberts, Hugh Grant
Directed by Roger Michell
Rated PG-13 (sexual content and brief strong language)
Running time 125 minutes
Released by Universal Pictures
Sun score * * *