When I was lying sleepless at nights, I would sometimes wonder what it would be like if I just turned up at my friends' house, where I used to have dinner once a week, with the most famous person at that time, be it Madonna or whomever. Who would try and be cool? How would you get through dinner? What would they say to you afterwards? That was the starting point, the idea of a very normal person going out with an unbelievably famous person and how that impinges on their lives.
- Richard Curtis, screenwriter
In the wake of "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace", there are a dearth of new releases expected to open in the period immediately before and following the sci-fi epic's May 19th release date. With the latest chapter in the sci-fi franchise expected to dominate the box office over the next few weeks, many studios have quietly withdrawn their major releases, giving Twentieth Century Fox and Lucasfilm plenty of room to maneuver. However, some studios have bravely decided to challenge "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" for a share of the box office pie under the notion of counter-programming.
In an effort to woo moviegoers who have little love for Lucas' latest, a number of releases scheduled around "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" cater to a different type of moviegoer (or so the studios hope). The most high-profile example would be "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me", slated in June. This past weekend, repackaged Hong Kong actioner "Black Mask" debuted into theaters. And then there is the Julia Roberts vehicle "Notting Hill", a romantic comedy bowing into theaters on May 28th, one week after George Lucas' 800 lb. gorilla. After all, another Julia Roberts romantic comedy, "My Best Friend's Wedding" did exceedingly well under stiff competition back (going up against heavyweights such as "The Lost World" and "Men in Black") in the summer of 1997... why should 1999 be any different? Unfortunately, this time around, "Notting Hill" lacks any of the charm and spunk that made "My Best Friend's Wedding" so memorable, and will most likely be one of the first casualties at the box office.
I live in Notting Hill, and you live in Beverly Hills... everyone knows who you are.
The concept is very simple: what if a nobody had a relationship with a very famous somebody? Will (Hugh Grant of "Sense and Sensibility") is a divorced bookseller living in Notting Hill, London. He has a simple life, running a bookstore that specializes in travel books, and picking up after his slothful and dim-witted roommate Spike (Rhys Ifans, in a scene-stealing role). However, Will's life undergoes a radical shift when of all the bookstores in London, world famous actress Anna Scott (Roberts) has to walk into his.
Will's first brush against fame is short as he manages to exchange a few pleasantries with Anna before she leaves the store. Fortunately for Will, this is not the last time he sees her. A short while later, while grabbing a coffee from a local shop, he runs into Anna, spilling his drink all over her shirt. Profusely sorry for making a mess, Will offers Anna the use of his apartment down the street where she can clean up and change. And just as it seems as though Will is about let another golden opportunity slip through his fingers, Anna plants him a lingering kiss good-bye.
And so begins an unlikely romance. Though they share an uncommon bond and find their own lives enriched by one another, the romance between Will and Anna is fraught with the same disappointment and pitfalls that are present in any relationship, only magnified by their contrasting stations in life. Anna is on a tight schedule with film shoots and press conferences, with her every move hungrily eyed by every tabloid reporter in town. Meanwhile, Will is an outsider to the glittery world of fame and stardom, and finds many of the doors needed for reaching Anna closed to him. Unfortunately, these difficulties, coupled with the unrelenting pressures of being constantly in the public eye, cast a dark cloud on the prospects of any truly lasting relationship between these two star-crossed lovers.
The fame thing isn't real... I'm still just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.
"Notting Hill" is one of those romantic-comedies that plays it safe by relying on internally-generated conflict in order to propel the drama. Unfortunately, there have been a lot of these lately ("Message in a Bottle" comes to mind), which makes "Notting Hill" dramatically unimpressive. Despite the interesting possibilities raised by the film's premise, Richard Curtis' script goes through the obligatory motions to set the story up (you can see the coffee-spilling accident a mile away), cultivate the relationship, and then pull the rug from under the characters with the expected sorts of complications. To make matters even less interesting, there are few external reasons stopping Will and Anna from pursuing their relationship, essentially internalizing all the conflict in the story (i.e. they only have to 'change their minds' in order for the relationship work). If Will or Anna, or both characters for that matter, had other externally-generated struggles that threatened to derail their relationship, perhaps the resolution would have been more emotionally gratifying since the choices that they would have to make would have been much harder. As it is, "Notting Hill" plays it safe with very few extenuating circumstances to complicate matters.
Part of the problem is also the lack of chemistry between the two romantic leads. Though Grant is well cast as a common Londoner, and Roberts is her usual radiant self, their scenes together lack the requisite spark and their conversations seem strained without betraying any hint of sexual tension. Both actors have a history of being better suited at reacting to situations than taking the lead-- note that one of the reasons why Roberts was so great in "My Best Friend's Wedding" was because she was able to play off the quirks of the other characters, such as the gay editor. In "Notting Hill", there were few quirky characters, except for Spike, which Grant and Roberts could play off of. Instead, these two actors wind up taking turns trying to react to one another, and as a result, the scenes between Will and Anna seem forced and lethargically paced.
Another issue with the script pertains to Roberts' character. Though some effort is made to elucidate Anna's point-of-view and the price she pays for fame, there are very few scenes that actually drive this issue home. Part of the reason why this is important is that the Curtis' script never convincingly establishes Anna's motivation for planting a kiss on Will after only knowing him for a few minutes. How lonely was her life? How much did she crave simple human contact or a brief respite from her hectic life? Unfortunately, these questions are never fully explored in "Notting Hill". Without providing any understanding as to what would drive Anna to do something so sudden, the set-up of the story comes across as some artificial construct to service the plot.
Furthermore, the script's structure dispels any sense of urgency from the proceedings. For the first half of the film, the relationship between Will and Anna plods along with very little intensity. It is not until well into the second act that high-stakes complications actually set in, intensifying the forces that threaten to pull them apart, and exacerbating the emotional consequences of the choices that they make. Unfortunately, this area of high narrative momentum quickly dissipates, after which the film sinks into another emotional trough until things pick up again for a somewhat satisfying resolution. Had the film expanded on the more intense middle section of the plot, even at the expense of moving some of the earlier scenes into it, "Notting Hill" would have been more successful at achieving the emotional high expected in a romantic-comedy. As it is, the plot lacks direction, and unfolds in a seemingly haphazard manner.
With few standout scenes, a lack of chemistry between its two leads, and a poorly structured plot, "Notting Hill" is a by-the-book romantic comedy that never seems to fully embrace the possibilities posed by its fetching premise. Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts may certainly be nice to look at, but there's little else in this film that could possibly captivate anyone for its two hour running time. I don't think George Lucas has anything to worry about from "Notting Hill".