Film: The Big Picture: First among sequels?

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The Independent Culture
Dwarfed by mountain ranges of hype, surrounded by rolling acres of press and promotion, Notting Hill itself was always bound to end up looking a tiny speck on the map. These days the machinery of PR - media previews, trailers, interviews, cover stories - creates its own hyperbolic momentum. As we're soon to discover with Star Wars - The Phantom Menace, it hardly seems to matter if the film is any good or not. None the less, I went along to the second most touted film of the year in a spirit of honest enthusiasm, because I like romantic comedies, I like Hugh Grant, and, along with the rest of the world, I love Julia Roberts. I wanted Notting Hill to be good.

Well, let's begin by saying that it's good enough - good enough to have them queueing round the block here and, when it opens, in the States. Perhaps especially in the States, where the combination of American glamour and English gentility should score very heavily. It's not untested ground, after all, especially when you consider the number of films that have practically killed themselves trying to be the next Four Weddings and A Funeral. In this regard, Notting Hill is a dead cert, a sure thing, because it actually is the next Four Weddings and A Funeral.

Written by Richard Curtis, it stars Hugh Grant as William Thacker, a syllable away from the novelist and the merest stutter away from the decent, mild-mannered, slightly forlorn chap he played in Four Weddings. We learn in short order that William is divorced, runs a failing travel bookshop in Notting Hill, and resides in a house nearby with a Welshman named Spike (Rhys Ifans). And one day, our easy-going hero was padding back to the shop when he bumped into Anna Scott (Julia Roberts), the most famous actress in the world, spilled orange juice all down her front, asked her back to his place and promptly fell in love.

That melding of quotidian reality and Cinderellan fantasy is the essence, and indeed the selling point, of Notting Hill. Curtis is eager that we should identify with William as an everyday bloke, which should be easy if you've never clapped eyes on Hugh Grant before. Yet as the film proceeds, you baulk not at the extraordinary circumstances of his romancing a movie star - once the lights go down you're prepared to believe a fairytale - but at the ordinary details of his life. Curtis simply hasn't thought his creation through. How come William is strapped for cash yet lives in a town house that must be worth over a million? How likely is it he would have a lodger - or indeed a friend - as defiantly uncouth and unwashed as Spike? Or a sister (Emma Chambers) who bears no familial resemblance to him whatsoever? (Ironically, his best friend, wheelchair-bound Gina McKee, has exactly the right cheekbones and eyes for a Grant sibling.)

This might seem nit-picking, but it points up a laziness which a moment's consideration would have corrected. Part of William's charm is his unworldliness, highlighted in the film's best set-piece: summoned to Anna's hotel, he finds himself in the middle of a press junket for her latest movie. With sweet ineptitude he masquerades as a journalist from the magazine Horse and Hound, and beneath the gimlet stare of the PR person stammers out a question. "The film's great... did you ever think of having more... horses in it?" Anna: "We would have liked to, but it was difficult, obviously, being set in space."

This is fun, but Curtis doesn't know when to stop: shortly after this somebody throws the name Leonardo DiCaprio at him and he replies: "Is he your favourite Italian film director?" Please, no - how can William be wise to the most famous actress in the world, but not the most famous actor? Similarly, would he know that Henry James wrote The Wings of the Dove, but not that Dickens wrote travel books? (No wonder his bookshop's failing.)

A mysterious cove, Richard Curtis. In few writers have brilliance and banality been so starkly entwined. This is the man who co-wrote Blackadder Goes Forth, a milestone of television comedy; also the man who co-wrote the unspeakable Mr Bean. You would swear that those two couldn't originate from the same pen. What characterises his writing in Notting Hill is an ingratiating inclusiveness - nobody must feel left out, nobody must feel offended. This is why most of William's close friends are, to one degree or another, flawed, and indeed there's a mortifying dinner party scene in which they each protest what failures they are - one can't cook, one's a hopeless stockbroker, one's, ah, in a wheelchair and can't have children, so that rather decides it. Self-deprecation among the talented and privileged is infinitely preferable to strutting braggadocio, of course, but sometimes self-deprecation can feel so calculating that it elides into self-regard. Curtis methinks protests too much.

Roger Michell directs competently and handles the one bravura sequence with aplomb - a walk through Notting Hill as the seasons turn, accomplished in one long take. He also does the important job of making Julia and Hugh look good. Roberts' trickiest moments involve reacting gleefully to the miserable sitcom jokes of the group scenes; that wraparound smile is really put to work. There seems to be so much dead space around these sequences that if anybody said something genuinely funny it would probably bring the house down. Grant is mostly required to convey diffidence and bemusement, which he manages as agreeably as ever. Together, the two of them have an affable chemistry that will ensure goodwill on both sides of the Atlantic. There is still comic life in the fairytale match of commoner and royalty (movie-stardom is royalty in this case), and those who aren't fussy about intricacies of character or crispness of writing will find Notting Hill very enjoyable - perhaps even uplifting. It's not a crime to settle for the mediocre, for the good enough. But nor is it a crime to wish that this film were a great deal better.