Except for appearing in public wih unshaved armpits, Julia Roberts hasn't been nailed lately by the tabloids. Anna Scott, the mega movie star Roberts plays with perfect comic pitch and surprising sting in Notting Hill, should be so lucky. Anna is Hollywood royalty on a London holiday, but the press never lets up on the sex, drugs and plastic surgery in her past. Now nude photos have been discovered – a youthful indiscretion – and the tabs are also hounding Anna about a fling she's having with William Thacker (a never-better Hugh Grant), the shy, shambling owner of a travel bookstore. The paparazzi lined up outside William's house on Portobello Road outnumber the crowds on the opening day of Star Wars. William urges Anna to ignore the hysteria. He claims their affair will soon be yesterday's gossip; people will use the newspapers to wrap fish and chips. It's an old argument, and Anna sets the fool straight. She rails against a cyber world in which every tidbit and photo is coded, filed and available anytime for retrieval on your favorite Web site. In case you haven't noticed, boy-meets-famous-girl stories have gotten a lot more complicated.
Notting Hill does take notice. In fact, the devilishly clever script by Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral) doesn't miss a trick about the age of non-innocence in which its lovers live. Curtis and director Roger Michell (Persuasion) – both class acts in the British cinema – conspire to make the summer's hottest date movie a scrappy antidote to candy-assed chick flicks, like The Love Letter and You've Got Mail, that dull the brain and leave you drowning in pastels.
Damn, I'm making Notting Hill sound like a heavy slog. Not so. It's a smashing romantic lark in which Roberts and Grant kindle a sweet, unforced sexiness that is plain irresistible. Their first meeting, in his ramshackle bookstore, sets up the relationship. William is initially cowed by Anna's star shine – his wife divorced him for a guy who looks like Harrison Ford. It takes an accident – he spills juice on her T-shirt – to get her into his house to change. Anna is disarmed, grateful; she offers a spontaneous kiss and, later, an invitation for a drink at her hotel.
The hotel scene is a gem. William arrives during a press junket for Anna's new film and pretends to be a journalist from Horse and Hound, allowing Curtis to take a series of wicked jabs at the publicity machine that helps Anna command $15 million a film.
Things get even funnier when Anna moves into William's turf. She accepts an invitation to accompany William to a birthday party for his ditzy sister Honey (Emma Chambers) at the home of their friends Max (Tim McInnerny) and Bella (Gina McKee), a former flame of William's who is now confined to a wheelchair. McKee's sharp, touching performance stands in contrast to the more obvious hilarity offered by Hugh Bonneville as Bernie, a financial type who is clueless about Anna's identity, and, especially, by Rhys Ifans, a shameless scene stealer as Spike, William's nut-job Welsh flat mate.
The birthday party is the film's laugh highlight, as William's chums struggle to retain their cool in the presence of a star and then scream like rabid groupies the second she leaves the house. It's a tribute to this star-driven movie that these expert supporting players are encouraged to develop characters of wit and nuance – an opportunity that added so much to the impact of Four Weddings and a Funeral. Nitpickers have chided Curtis for poaching from that film. But Notting Hill takes so many delicious new [Cont. on 76] turns, I don't see much reason to complain.
Roberts, too, has taken some early hits from critics who find it unseemly when a female star plays a character capable of selfishness, resentment and anger. Screw that. Male characters with those traits are more often praised for being fully rounded. Roberts should be commended for taking challenging roles in films, such as Notting Hill and My Best Friend's Wedding, that don't typecast her as a goody-goody. Yes, Anna freaks out when she believes, unfairly, that William has betrayed their relationship to the tabloids. And, yes, Anna is sometimes oblivious to the effects of her diva behavior. Grant makes William's nicked pride palpable when he overhears Anna dismiss him to a fellow actor as "an awkward situation."
Yet for all its smarts and brittle laughs, Notting Hill is buoyed most by its tenderness. When William takes Anna for an evening walk in one of the fenced parks that dot his neighborhood, she spots a bench that bears the inscription for june, who loved this garden. From Joseph, who always sat beside her. Most Hollywood films would milk that scene for sloppy tears. Notting Hill simply pauses and moves on, but not before Anna and William share an unspoken recognition of the simple pleasures they've been missing. In a summer of digital glitz, Notting Hill reminds us of the simple pleasures we've been missing. Until now.