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Metro Pulse Love By Numbers

Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant cook up a little chemistry (and not much else) in Notting Hill.

By Coury Turczyn

JUNE 7, 1999:  Considering that she's the highest paid actress, ever, what exactly does Julia Roberts have to offer?

Most of her movies have been bombs, and for good reason (anybody recall I Love Trouble? Mary Reilly? Ready to Wear? The Pelican Brief?). Even her two hits are entertainment underachievers (can anyone honestly say that either Pretty Woman or My Best Friend's Wedding are genuinely great movies?). As far as screen personas go, hers is not exactly the most distinctive—in fact, "amiably bland" seems to be her modus operandi; she commonly plays smart, nice, somewhat vulnerable women with romantic yearnings. In the pantheon of legendary actresses—Garbo, Davis, Crawford, Hepburn (heck, even Sarandon)—this resume doesn't exactly stack up. So why is she revered as our greatest female star and paid handsomely to perform in so much drek?

In her latest romantic comedy (surely to be followed by dozens more), Notting Hill, we do see a hint of why Roberts is so beloved. With her offbeat features and insistently glowing smile, she does personify a sort of middle class everywoman who's got the will and determination to get herself a Hunk. She never seems overtly sexual or desperate or unfulfilled—but you do want to see her joyfully in the arms of a good man. Roberts has formed a booming career out of making audiences want to see her characters find happiness. And Notting Hill accomplishes this feat with more success than most of her previous films.

Roberts plays Anna Scott, an American movie star diva in London who falls in love with stuffy, non-celebrity Englishman William Thacker (Hugh Grant). And, just as she did playing a hooker, Roberts appears as ordinary and wholesome as apple pie. In fact, she's barely believable as a superhot celebrity who's the center of global paparazzi attention (glaring real-life irony: she IS one); Anna is just too darn normal. But that's mostly irrelevant to the main crux of any romantic comedy: Do Roberts and Grant have chemistry? When they look at each other, do their eyes twinkle in a convincing manner? When they inevitably get separated, do they appear to be miserable? Yes; yes, they do. And that's Notting Hill's saving grace—even if nothing is particularly fresh about the storyline, it gets the job of romance done well enough.

Written by Richard Curtis and produced by Duncan Kenworthy—the very same team behind Four Weddings and a FuneralNotting Hill continues their collaborative mise en scene. That is, stick a dithering Hugh Grant in the midst of a colorful cast of Brit characters and watch him fall in and out of love with an American woman over the course of a year. This isn't a bad thing, mind you, just a familiar one. In this case, Grant's Thacker is the owner of a travel book store in London's colorful Notting Hill area. He is charming, affable, and unstintingly polite (has there ever been an actor as smotheringly polite as Hugh Grant?). When the famous Anna Scott comes into his shop one day, he presents his usual engaging hem-and-haw routine, and she leaves without instantly falling in love with him. But later, as he's walking back to the store with a cup of orange juice, they literally bump into each other (bumping into each other on the street—what an ingenious twist!). Thus begins two hours of Grant's amusing dither and Roberts' radiant smiles.

This is certainly not a bad way to spend some time at a movie theater. To be sure, Grant and Roberts are eminently likable and easy on the eyes. Furthermore, Curtis has a knack for creating side characters who are actually more interesting than the main ones, and Kenworthy has put together some fine character actors for the roles. They bring much wit and depth to a genre that's usually short on both. But, while the script does present an array of separation anxieties for the couple, their ultimate consummation seems all too inevitable.

As actors, both Roberts and Grant have a lot of personal appeal, but it's not as if they'll ever deliver any real surprises. Grant, in particular, has his schtick down so pat it becomes a bit cloying—must his character apologize so damn much? Can't he just once stick up for himself? Will he ever become angry over anything? Even when William defends Anna's honor, he's just so darn nice about it. The only time Grant shows any sort of sudden emotion is when he comically blurts "bugger!" whenever things go wrong. His character seems so utterly perfect you've got to wonder why women aren't flinging themselves at him as he trots down the street; sadly, neither Grant nor the script offer any answers. To her credit, Roberts does at least have one scene in which Anna becomes cross with William, and some friction develops. Could they be human? you start thinking—but things return to peaceful placidity soon enough.

In the end, you do want to see them together and living in bliss for ever after, and that's what Notting Hill delivers. So for all you Pretty Woman/Four Weddings fans out there, this one's for you.

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