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Romance is many a slip between the cup and the tabloids

By Ray Pride

JUNE 1, 1999:  Why don't we get more romantic tragedies?

Sadly, the worst romantic tragedy is a failed romantic comedy, when boy meets girl and the audience wishes they'd met neither one of them. "Notting Hill," a variation on the worldwide success, "Four Weddings and a Funeral," is neither a failure on screen nor will it be in theaters worldwide. In a week or so of screenings that offered up the double-barreled pounding headaches of "The Mummy" and "The Phantom Menace," the gussied-up two hander of "Notting Hill" seemed like genius; a couple of weeks later, it's certainly no masterpiece, but it still makes me grin to think about it.

The axiom holds that American romantic comedy lost its screwball vitality when changes in society swept away the obstacles that once held lovers apart. It's part of why many stories about women with gay roommates, or gay-themed romances seem to work when almost every heterosexual hello-how-do-you-dos fall flat. So when Richard Curtis, the talented writer of "Blackadder," "The Tall Guy," and "Bean" was challenged to repeat his boffo box-office romance, "Four Weddings and a Funeral," he struck upon a blunt yet effective obstacle to truest love. What if you "met cute" with Anna Scott (Julia Roberts), and I quote from how Curtis' script sells it: "the great movie star of our time - an ideal - the perfect star and woman - her life full of glamour and sophistication and mystery." And what if you were William Thacker, unlucky-in-love, bespectacled Hugh Grant, owner of a failing travel-bookstore, sharing your flat with a gangling creature (shameless Rhys Ifans) you can only refer to as "the masturbating Welshman"?

Curtis has published an almost coffee-table fat book of his script, interspersed with richly colored stills (Hodder & Stoughton, $15). While the royalties are pegged for his favored charity, Comic Relief, it's an almost embarrassingly luxe edition of the writing of someone who appreciates the modest gesture, the odd stumble, the ratty character. Yet its selection of cut scenes and false starts offers an interesting perspective on how "Notting Hill" is a canny retread of all of "Four Weddings and a Funeral"'s elements - stammering Englishman, goofball American girl, a disabled character, side characters whose rattiness make the lead male seem almost otherworldly in his attractiveness although he is but the big-eared, floppy-haired Grant.

Roberts has had her share of tiffs with the tabloids, and if I hadn't seen "Notting Hill," maybe I'd have pored over the Vanity Fair cover that touts their cover profile of the actress as a higher form of puff than tabloid huff-and-puff. The gossip columns and the wealth of tabloids, in life and "Notting Hill," serve to flatter a poverty of imagination that reassures eager readers that money and fame only buy more problems. Not saying that the rich are like you and I, only with more money, but that they have risen above their station, gotten uppity, too big for their britches, and are deserving their comeuppance.

Essentially, we have a low-key story of two dissimilar smart people who find themselves in rooms together, flirting warily inch by inch toward each other's interior reality. Curtis and director Roger Michell do a good job of suggesting how their lives don't fit together, yet offer us little about how they could or should. Again, that's smart. The reason we become so involved as viewers is because we're left to invent their attraction for ourselves. We read in happily, according to our own perceptions about love, the media, movies and the half-life of lies, whether in the press or in one's own cocked-up notions of romance. Not to mention our battering expectations of romantic love, fostered over time by movies and friends, one's repeated dreams, or worst and best, the frightening fact of someone lovely twinkling near your fingerprints.

While the fairytale romance of a commoner and a queen holds water, the most charming element for me was Roberts. In playing a version of famous person, an elevated, heightened caricature of herself, Roberts displays the charm others have found in her other films. Suddenly, the alleged glamour puss, portraying a fictional "true-life" glamour puss radiates gleaming joy. She's having fun up there.

It's easy sometimes to settle for piquant bunkum, a few moments of charm in lazy work, but it's important not to dismiss a smart, sweet gem like this just because its structure seems familiar. The hard-won appearance of something that is so calculated yet plays as if effortlessly tossed off must be treasured.

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