It's slick, it's gawky, it's 10 minutes too long, and it's certainly not "Four Weddings and a Funeral Part 2" in either construction or overall tone. But "Notting Hill," the second outing of scripter Richard Curtis, producer Duncan Kenworthy and actor Hugh Grant, has buckets to spare of that rarest screen commodity --- genuine, engaging charm.
It’s slick, it’s gawky, it’s 10 minutes too long, and it’s certainly not “Four Weddings and a Funeral Part 2” in either construction or overall tone. But “Notting Hill,” the second outing of scripter Richard Curtis, producer Duncan Kenworthy and actor Hugh Grant, has buckets to spare of that rarest screen commodity — genuine, engaging charm — plus a cast and production values that fully deliver when the chips are down.Toplined in style by Grant and Julia Roberts, this romantic comedy, couched as a modern fairytale, about a shy London bookseller who falls for a Hollywood megastar (and vice versa) has all the makings of a spiffy popular hit for Polygram and Universal, so long as auds don’t go expecting a retread of the previous picture. Following heavy local hoopla, the film world-preemed in London April 27 and starts exclusive engagements May 21, going wide the following week. Stateside, Universal is planning nationwide sneaks for May 15, with general release to follow May 28. Clearly aware of the sophomore curse, and the fact that the 1994 “Four Weddings” was both very much of its time and unreplicable in sequel terms, Kenworthy and Curtis have preserved elements of the first pic (glamorous Yank, gauche Brit hero, a circle of his friends) but gone for a much more straight-arrow storyline, less ensemble playing and a good, old-fashioned princess-and-a-commoner love story that’s like a late-’90s London-set version of “Roman Holiday.” Though there’s still plenty of Curtis’ signature humor, especially in his comic observation of the spaces between words, this is very much a kinder, gentler movie — less manic in keeping its audience hooked, more confident in the longer lines of the story’s emotional arc, and less reliant on barbed one-liners and eccentric characters per se. Roberts’ American is a fully-drawn character rather than a one-dimensional bolt-on, like Andie MacDowell’s. Notable, too, is the fact that, apart from its two leads, the cast is hardly packed with significant names. In all those respects, pic says a lot about the greater self-assurance in the Brit film industry since the time of “Four Weddings,” when the movie stood out with its confidence and optimism. Grant’s William Thacker is a bookseller in Notting Hill, and his circle in the north London district includes a mad, unwashed Welshman, Spike (Rhys Ifans, from “Twin Town”), with whom he shares a house; Martin (James Dreyfus), his assistant at the tiny travel book shop on Portobello Road; younger sister Honey (Emma Chambers), a complete ditz; best friends, couple Max and Bella (Tim McInnerny, Gina McKee); and Bernie (Hugh Bonneville), who’s a boring something in the City. William’s unspectacular life changes one day when Anna Scott (Roberts), the planet’s most famous film actress, walks in alone and buys a book. She’s friendly in a professional way, he’s star-struck and there it might have ended if William hadn’t subsequently gone out to buy some orange juice and bumped into Anna on the street, spilling the drink over her expensive T-shirt. After some persuasion, Anna agrees to go to William’s nearby house for a sponge-down, relaxes under his awkward but honest charm and again seems to walk out of his life. Seconds later, however, while William is still recovering from the experience , she returns — to collect her shopping bag and give him an unexpected kiss of thanks, just before the nerdy Spike enters and brings them crashing back to reality. It’s a tribute to Curtis’ dialogue, and helmer Roger Michell’s skill with actors, that this setup works in screen terms. Both Grant and Roberts manage to shed enough of their movie personas to establish the beginnings of a screen chemistry that becomes vital as the film progresses. Thereon, the film’s focus widens as William turns up at a hotel to meet Anna for tea, only to find she’s in the middle of a press junket; invites her to a birthday dinner for Honey at the home of Max and Bella (a splendidly played sequence); and spends the next evening alone with her at dinner. However, in the first of several setbacks to their cross-tracks romance, a surprise awaits them back at her hotel — and Anna disappears again from William’s life. Only after two more coincidental meetings, spread over a year and a half, and further misunderstandings and speed-bumps, does the on-off relationship resolve itself. It’s easy to sit back and analyze faults in the pic’s construction: As Anna keeps coming and going out of William’s tiny universe, you sit there waiting for scripter Curtis to come up with another unlikely reason for the two to cross paths; some characters (Honey, and restaurateur Tony) have clearly suffered from scenes eliminated during post-production; and despite the script’s insistence that William has never had much success with women, Grant never really convinces in that respect. There’s a period, too, during the second half when both the tempo and temperature drop, and the movie starts to idle in neutral. But despite these faults, the last two reels pack a joyous, emotional punch that’s extremely moving and returns the pic to its opening tone of funny, fairytale-like romance. A crucial late-on line, heartbreakingly delivered by Roberts unlocks a reservoir of emotion that’s been held at bay by both the plot machinations and the thesps’ restrained perfs, and powers the movie to its cliffhanger ending. If Roberts had fluffed the line, the rest of the film might never have worked. While not far from his “Four Weddings” persona, Grant is fine as the emotional dweeb, downplaying his physical shtick and showing surprising iron in William’s character when necessary. His set pieces that scatter the movie (such as posing as a reporter from “Horse & Hound” magazine at a press junket) are genuinely engaging, and Grant melds well with the below-title players, among whom Ifans is funny as the troglodyte Spike and McKee especially good as Max’s wheelchair-bound wife, Bella. Roberts, with the most difficult role in the picture, starts slowly but builds through small increments to the powerful ending, in which she’s simply radiant. Without overdoing the gawkiness or dressing-down, thesp manages to convince she has another side to her personality while also remaining a Hollywood star — especially in one scene in which, cornered by the British tabloid press, she abruptly switches into cold, professional mode. As a technical package, the movie is slick in all departments, without being glossy. It’s certainly the most elaborate production signed by Michell (“Persuasion,” “Titanic Town”), a former TV director more noted for drawing fine perfs than delivering elaborate-looking goods. Throughout the picture, there’s a sense of virtuosity being held at bay, and only let loose at key moments. The opening and closing are unashamedly bigscreen romantic, and, to mark key chapter-stops in the narrative, Michell slyly inserts arresting sequences — a vertiginous, 150-foot crane shot in a park at night; a clever combo of tracking shots and overlapping dissolves to mark a passage of time and a final lunatic Steadicam sequence which has no purpose except to end the picture on a fun note. Studio interiors (such as the book shop and William’s flat) are smoothly integrated with location work. Trivia buffs will note an uncredited cameo by Alec Baldwin, and the fact that a book Grant is reading, “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,” is actually Michell’s next project.