Friday, May 28, 1999

Comedy brightened by star light

Movie: Notting Hill

Posted on Fri, May 28, 1999 at 4:00 AM

***1/2
Our Rating: 3.50

"Notting Hill," a funny, clever romantic comedy from the writing-producing team responsible for the genial "Four Weddings and a Funeral," follows the relationship between an American film star and the English regular chap whose lot it is to fall madly in love with her. In the role of the princess: real-life screen queen Julia Roberts, she of the gleaming teeth, sparkling eyes and per-movie-paycheck of $15 million or so. Hugh Grant is the commoner. Talk about "high concept."

Grant plays William Thacker, the unlucky-in-love owner of a travel book store in London's trendy Notting Hill neighborhood. Handsome, literate and wittily self-deprecating, he's resigned himself to a life devoid of romance, particularly since his traumatic divorce.

Roberts, surprisingly enough in the wake of rather predictable work in "Conspiracy Theory" and "My Best Friend's Wedding," does more than go through the motions as Anna Scott. Her status is related through an opening montage that might easily be mistaken as images from Roberts' real life.

Anna, hiding behind sunglasses, first encounters William at his homey, unpretentious shop. Later, they meet cute by literally running into each other, a collision that causes the entrepreneur to douse the star's blouse with orange juice. It's back to William's nearby apartment, a pig sty of a bachelor pad he shares with unkempt, lunatic roommate Spike (Rhys Ifans). "It was nice to meet you -- surreal but nice," William offers, awkwardly, before her hasty departure with an unexpected kiss from the goddess that leaves the mortal dazed and confused.

It's somewhat surreal, too, hearing Roberts complain about the likely disappearance of good roles as she ages, confess to plastic surgery, freak out about the ever-present paparazzi and bemoan a long series of unsatisfying relationships.

The proper response is probably the one provided by William's wacky sister (Emma Chambers) and their circle of friends, played by the uniformly excellent Hugh Bonneville, Tim McInnerny and Gina McKee: Yes, the star has an entertaining story but, no, she won't be awarded the last brownie for having the saddest saga of the evening.

But give Roberts credit for sparking with Grant and creating some poignancy. He's unwilling to risk another broken heart. "Don't forget I'm also just a girl standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her," she says, on the verge of tears. Not to worry. This is Hollywood: He won't forget.

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