by Mike McGranaghan

A mild-mannered British bookstore owner named William (Hugh Grant) is tending to his merchandise one day. His shop is specialized, selling only books about travel. Not many people come through the door really, but then it opens and in walks Anna Scott (Julia Roberts). She is perhaps the biggest movie star in the world, now in London to promote her latest film. Anna is incognito, to a point; she wears enough of a disguise to hide her face, but not enough so that no one recognizes her. She craves both anonymity and the spotlight.

The bookstore owner is stunned. He starts up a conversation. She is amused by his befuddled attempts at coolness. She leaves, only to run into him again later on the street. He invites her to his apartment and she goes. Before she leaves, they have kissed. A sudden, unlikely romance blossoms. This is the premise of Notting Hill, a romantic comedy written by Richard Curtis, whose screenplay for Four Weddings and a Funeral remains one of the best examples of the genre in recent years.

Notting Hill attempts to answer the question: can a gorgeous female superstar find true love with an ordinary working-class joe? It certainly isn't easy. William takes her to a dinner party where some of his friends practically salivate over Anna while others haven't the slightest idea who she is. Then the media gets involved. Photographers stake themselves out in front of William's house, waiting to snap a picture. Later on, Anna finds herself the subject of a sordid tabloid scandal. She says she just wants to be in love, but the fickle nature of her career and her unavoidable fame make that difficult. Fame repeatedly intrudes upon love.

What I liked most about Notting Hill was its premise. Curtis has written a beautiful screenplay that captures the bizarre obsession the media has with the love lives of celebrities while still romanticizing the idea that stars are just ordinary people too. There are a lot of very funny lines of dialogue (much like in Four Weddings) that are as insightful about human nature as they are riotous. Grant is a master at this kind of thing, and he does a quieter, more downcast version of the character he's played in most of his other comedies. Nonetheless, he brings a lot of fun and humor to the movie, giving the script an extra punch. Roberts is also well cast. She basically plays herself, or at least the public's image of her. Roberts' aloofness is well suited to the role; Anna keeps saying her intentions are pure, but the demands of her career sometimes distract her from the things she professes to want.

Although I think this is a good film, it might have been a great one. The problem: Grant and Roberts have no chemistry together. Not once did I really believe they were in love. Both actors are effective in their roles, but there's no spark between them the way there was between Grant and Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings or between Roberts and Richard Gere in Pretty Woman. Because of this, Notting Hill plays entertainingly enough, but never reaches the kind of romantic heights I would have liked. The whole movie balances on the idea that these two people from different worlds fall for each other, but the stars don't create any sparks. They're a cute couple, but not a fiery one.

I recommend the movie because it is so beautifully written and performed (an actor named Rhys Ifans hilariously plays Grant's roommate Spike and walks off with every scene he's in). Notting Hill also scores points for its final image. Most romantic comedies end with the two characters kissing. Not this one. Instead, the last shot is deeper, more meaningful - an image that suggests the characters have a life well beyond the end credits.

( out of four)

Notting Hill is rated PG-13 for language and sexuality. The running time is 2 hours and 6 minutes.

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