Seeing Stars

Ordinary bloke meets pretty woman: Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant in Notting Hill

"You know what happens when mortals get involved with immortals," a trusty friend of bookstore owner William Thacker warns in Notting Hill. "They get buggered," responds William, clearly familiar with the classics. In the fantasy sold by this bright, transparent movie about the romance between a superstar actress and a divorced London bloke, the mortal gets to bugger the immortal, planting his earth in her fire. The irony, of course, is that the film waggishly employs headline stars to play the famous actress Anna Scott and the lowly William: The two characters represent those actors' "real-life" celebrity selves as much as anything.

In other words, the audience can align itself with Hugh Grant's William and inhabit this mortal's dream of landing Julia Roberts, er, Anna Scott--"a person," Roberts earnestly declares in this month's Vanity Fair, "who really only shares an occupation and a height and a weight and a status with me." (Yes, and a weakness for scruffy movie-star boyfriends, and a messy tabloid history, and a wistful vision of normal, mortal romance--see Lyle Lovett.) Or maybe the viewer can relinquish the small hope of not seeing Hugh Grant as Hugh Grant and simply enjoy watching a film that revivifies the difference between stars and the rest of us.

When it works, which is surprisingly often, Notting Hill keeps both ostensibly opposite meanings in the air: It's spontaneously giddy and cynical, like the celebrity game itself. (The light touch comes courtesy of screenwriter Richard Curtis, who also penned Four Weddings and a Funeral.) Grant trots out his tried-and-true babbling and bumbling screen persona, which Four Weddings and a Funeral and Nine Months, etc., have taught audiences to regard as the "real" Hugh. But apart from one appalling moment when the actor actually bites his lip in rue, Grant's wittily self-deprecating act perfectly suits William by making him appealingly human. After all, who wouldn't stammer--whether in fear or lust--when miraculously thrust into the presence of Roberts's face-eating smile?

And thrust William is, according to the film's conceit, after the planet's biggest movie star chooses, out of all the bookstores in all the towns in all the world, to walk into his. Further unlikely events lead to him sheltering Anna at his nearby flat, where she kisses him for no conceivable reason except perhaps pity (oh yes, and he is the lovely Hugh Grant). The film goes silent, allowing the audience time to imagine being kissed so suddenly, so impossibly. It does feel "surreal, but nice," as Hugh--sorry, William--clumsily spouts to Anna.

At this point, Roberts's movie star appears suitably opaque, mysterious, inexplicable; she signifies only distance and beauty (or at least the beauty that celebrity decrees; to me she still looks like an odd cross between a raccoon and a lamprey). After more dubious plot contrivances, William arrives at Anna's hotel in the middle of a press junket, where a series of amusing misunderstandings leads to more humiliations for William and a little character development for Anna. She is a bit of a sadist, it seems, albeit one with a sense of humor.

Unfortunately, the Anna whom Curtis and director Roger Michell finally have in mind is less interesting than that. So stock is this star, with her hidden insecurities and selfish tantrums, that it falls to Roberts to goose the characterization with a sprinkle of her $17 million fairy dust. So when William takes Anna out, Roberts begins to exude her usual mischievous joie de vivre. She also gamely lets the dialogue strike sparks off her own celebrity career: During a delightfully awkward dinner party, William's "normal" friends trade hard-luck tales in a competition for the last brownie; Anna's mock complaint bewails the tabloid exploitation of her romantic heartbreaks and ends with "One day my looks will go, and they'll discover I can't act."

Michell freezes the scene so that everybody can appreciate what Julia Roberts has just said--and then all the actors laugh and shake their heads firmly. At its entertaining best, Notting Hill has it both ways: Anna is Julia, Anna is not Julia. Curtis further blurs the lines by dropping the names of other Hollywood actors into the script. Sitting unaware behind Anna and William in a restaurant, a group of men compares the sexual auras of Meg Ryan and Anna Scott, with one of them lasciviously likening the latter's to a prostitute's eagerness to please. Needless to say, it's difficult to keep one's head in the fiction, what with Grant's own career-shaking prostitution bust and Roberts's career-making role as a pretty hooker.

At first, this sketch seems cheap and unnecessary, just another "poor me" story for Anna. (What shit those famous actresses have to endure!) Upon reflection, though, it reads like an admission of guilt from the screenwriter and director, who are, as much as that man in the restaurant, writing a script in which they get to fuck Julia Roberts and then sell that fantasy to the audience. In the movie, Julia Roberts-as-Anna gets to verbally chastise the impertinent fan, while the filmmakers punish their own insolence by regularly embarrassing William, their proxy (to the tune of overused soul classics by Al Green and Bill Withers--guess they've been staying up late with those Ryan-Hanks romantic comedies).

Indeed, Notting Hill spins a cycle of fantasy-humiliation-revenge that's endemic in celebrity culture. William's gaucheries with Anna speak to Americans' feelings of inadequacy in the face of our superstar regime; his potency with her reflects our ravenous, manufactured desire. As Roberts has learned well, though, that uneasy combination leads fans to tear down idols as quickly as they fall for them. In another titillating echo of real events, Roberts-as-Anna must herself be humbled before this drawn-out fantasy is complete. As for Grant, who knows a thing or two about mortification, you could say that Notting Hill welcomes him back into the grace of the limelight.

William's quirky friends aren't so lucky. Played by some terrific English "character actors" (Tim McInnerny, Gina McKee, Emma Chambers, Hugh Bonneville), they were never stars in the first place, unlike Hugh, a.k.a. William: They're locked out of the secret garden that William and Anna discover. Like other commoner-weds-royalty tales, Notting Hill displays a persistent strain of cruelty toward "normal" folk (not to mention one too many gay jokes). The film takes great comic pleasure, for instance, in ridiculing William's roommate Spike (Rhys Ifans), a brain-addled (hee hee), butt-crack-exposing (ha ha!), hygiene-challenged (ha ha ha!) Scotsman (whoo!). This ultramortal is a funny creation, but it feels like he was conceived just to get the audience jeering at itself: eternally imperfect and lumpish against the brilliance of stars.


Notting Hill is playing at area theaters.

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