WITH PERSUASION, THE BEST JANE AUSTEN ADAPTATION since Clueless, under his belt, the talented English director Roger Michell has gone studio with a romantic comedy wishfully built to foster hot vibe between Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant. Michell is in over his head, and the result is two films: a big, dreary star vehicle that sags whenever its leads spend quality time together, and a mettlesome British caper whose nutsosecondary characters walk away with the movie.
Notting Hill is a calculated little number, from its transatlantic casting (a growing habit these days among distributors with their beady eyes fixed on export markets) to its brazen flattery of American illusions about quaint Brits. Set in the gentrified London borough of Notting Hill, which houses the famously hipsterish Portobello Road outdoor market, the movie positions Roberts as Anna Scott, an American movie star burdened beyond endurance by wealth and fame, poor thing. By the facile serendipity that writer Richard Curtis perfected in Four Weddings and a Funeral, Anna keeps bumping into William Thacker (Grant), a nerdy bookseller whose wife has left him for someone who looks like Harrison Ford. An act of impeccable taste from where I'm looking: Grant's patented eternal boyhood, his milky good looks and the shambling, twitty charm he has lazily honed to remain Hollywood's favorite English lad, have curdled into shtick -- he's a collection of reaction shots, blue-eyed and befuddled.
Love blossoms for Anna and William, then wanes briefly under the influence of a coyly uncredited appearance by a major Hollywood hunk, then blooms afresh against all odds. Fortunately it's the odds, or at any rate the oddities, that lend Notting Hill what pep it has. In the movie's Hollywood mode, William's pals and family exist to demonstrate that homespun love and good will conquer all. Very nice, very boring, until the ensemble, mostly veterans of television, starts living up to the best aspirations of English situation comedy, exposing the polite misnomer "British eccentricity" as the capacity to act barking mad while passing as a nondescript Joe. The Welsh actor Rhys Ifans is priceless as William's roommate Spike, an unwashed idler who looks like a broom that's just been fed through a car wash, and ends up the idiot savant who turns William's romantic fortunes around.
Without its peripheral antics, including a very funny press conference in which William passes himself off as a celebrity writer from Horse and Hound, Notting Hill is nothing. Michell hasn't a clue how to pace or score a Hollywood picture: Glacially inert and punctuated with tasteful guitar bits flagging a delicacy that's totally out of keeping with the slick, likable confection Notting Hill was meant to be (a studio pro like Ivan Reitman could put it together in his sleep), the movie simply doesn't hang together. For one thing, a shy bookworm like William would loathe everything Notting Hill stands for, in particular the strenuously up-to-the-minute Portobello market. For another, he'd be the last man in the world to fall for a mere face, even Roberts' face. Perhaps especially Roberts' face, for, absent the opportunity to do the gifted hamming that catapulted her from Mystic Pizza to Pretty Woman, she wilts into the sad-sack self-pity that made Mary Reilly such a chore to watch, and dithers around marking time till she can flash the megawatt smile that too often serves in lieu of performance. "My looks will go, and they will discover I can't act," mopes Anna: Next thing you know, she's landed an Oscar and the lead in a Henry James adaptation. True to its bifurcated nature, Notting Hill has two endings, one a stock sequence of Hollywood glam, the other an unwittingly telling shot of the happy pair wrapped in each other's arms, gazing in opposite directions. Mind you, anyone who has to deliver or receive a line like "You are lovelier this morning than you have ever been" might be forgiven for pretending to be somewhere else.
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NOTTING HILL | Directed by ROGER MICHELL | Written by RICHARD CURTIS | Produced by DUNCAN KENWORTHY Released by Universal Pictures | Citywide