It seemed like the perfect match: brash, beautiful, impulsive and open Julia Roberts as world-class movie star Anna Scott, and bashful, terminally cute, bumbling, rumpled Hugh Grant as travel bookstore owner William Thacker. Together at last in a vehicle carefully crafted to show off the essence of each. Another Bogart and Bacall? Tracy and Hepburn? Maybe even William Thackeray and Becky Sharp? In the deathless words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Not to Be.
How come? Reason one: Grant's stammering, muddled, hesitant persona is wearing awfully thin. Once (in "Four Weddings and a Funeral") is charming, because it's new and unexpected in a leading man. Now, watching him repeat it line for line, gesture for gesture, in plot situations that call for a real human being and are grossly inappropriate to the shtick, he bores us with the death of a thousand cutes.
Reason two: Chemistry, or the lack of it. Whether or not the rumors are true that on the set Roberts would go days without speaking to Grant, it's certainly understandable that she'd be tempted. She gives, he takes. She talks, he can't finish a sentence. He's like a talking toy whose battery is running down. You want to shake him and say "Speak!" It's not just a function of the role; Grant simply brings nothing beyond what's on the page.
Reason three: The script, or what passes for it. Richard Curtis's screenplay was obviously done by the numbers, apparently from one to two. The setup is, of course, opposites attract. She is the world-famous actress and he is the insular shopkeeper. So they One, meet cute, at his Notting Hill bookstore. Two, they're driven apart. One, they meet again. Two, they split up again. One, they -- Okay already, we got it. And Curtis has substituted occupation for personality. Anna is nothing but 'star,' though Roberts works hard at finding some nugget of personality in the role. William is nothing but 'travel bookstore owner,' which here serves only as the pretext for the first meet-cute scene. And Thacker is given a clone of the same kooky sister he had in "Four Weddings."
What's most maddening about "Notting Hill" is that hidden somewhere deep inside there lies the making of a wonderful fairy-tale film -- or, alternatively, a kind of updated "La Dolce Vita," where cynicism might rule and everyone's pretensions be ridiculed. There is, for example, a hint of tragedy around the edges. Thacker's best friend has married a woman Thacker loved but couldn't open himself up to. But when we meet them we see that she is now a paraplegic. Interesting, perhaps important, but it leads nowhere. Thacker's roommate (Rhys Ifans), written here as the caricature of a totally self-involved slob who ends up saving the day (did we not know that was coming?) might have deepened the film, but only demeans it with repetitive grossnesses.
There is one truly delicious moment in the film, though. For reasons we don't need to go into, Thacker finds himself one of a few dozen reporters being shuttled through the star's hotel suite, caught in a press junket for her new film, which he hasn't seen, and given a few minutes to ask questions of each of the actors (he's managed to identify himself as working for Horse & Hound magazine). So he is compelled to talk with a ten-year-old actress about her role. "What did you like best?" he asks. "Working with Leonardo," she answers. "DaVinci?" he wonders. "DeCaprio," she says, looking at him strangely. "Oh," he says. "Is he your favorite Italian director?"
Would that he were. He might have made a better film.