Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 27, 2020)
If you examine film release schedules, you may notice a fairly substantial gap both before and after May 19, 1999. On that date, a little flick called The Phantom Menace - or Star Wars: Episode I - hit screens, and it became the behemoth from which all competition ran.
One flick had the audacity to go into wide release on May 21, as The Love Letter was offered as a sacrifice to the counter-programming gods. The theory behind its appearance at this time reasoned that a) all those people who couldn’t get in to sold-out shows of Menace needed something to see, and b) since Menace mainly appealed to males, a serious chick-flick like Letter might attract a significant crowd who wanted something different.
This reasoning makes sense on the surface, but it fails to account for the cultural phenomenon that was Menace. Especially during its first week, that film’s appeal transcended virtually all demographical boundaries; it became a “must-see” experience for virtually all ages, genders, races, and whatnots. Letter couldn’t break through in the face of this onslaught.
As it happened, the idea behind this counter-programming really was valid, but it was the timing that was faulty. This proved true a week later, when Notting Hill hit screens.
By May 28, the masses had already experienced Menace, and many would be ready to check out something different. Sure, the Star Wars faithful and the kids would still be most interested in Menace, but they weren’t the target audience for Hill. By that point in time, those who would be interested in a romantic comedy would be more open to the possibility.
Actually, it’s also likely that Hill would have outperformed Letter even if the release schedules had been reversed. Circa 1999, the combination of Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant clearly eclipsed an ensemble in which the biggest names were those of Kate Capshaw, Tom Selleck and Ellen Degeneres.
As such, it seems probable that Letter would have been a bit of a dud nonetheless. Heck, it’s possible that the movie got such a terrible release date just to let the studio have an easy excuse for its failure.
The same reasoning wouldn’t have worked as well for Hill, As of 1999, it’d been a few years since Julia Roberts experienced a true flop, so Universal clearly wanted to maintain her run of hits.
That she did, and even for a person like myself who doesn’t much care for chick-flicks, I have to admit that Notting Hill offers a reasonably effective and entertaining piece.
At the start of the film, we meet Will Thacker (Grant), the fairly quiet proprietor of a somewhat unsuccessful London travel bookstore located in the Notting Hill district. That’s also where Will lives and where virtually all of his family and friends reside.
Will leads a rather insulated life, but all that starts to change one day when a new customer enters the shop: Anna Scott (Roberts), an insanely famous movie star. The two briefly chat about a book that she purchases, and life seems to move on, or at least it would if life didn’t include two attractive movie stars who need to feed a plot.
Yes, it’s time for the true “meet cute” moment, the part of the flick in which our romantic leads come together in star-crossed fashion. Will goes out for beverages, and as he returns, he accidentally spills orange juice all over Anna.
Since his abode is so close, she stops in there to clean up, and a few sparks exchange. She seems to move on, but inevitably additional contact is made when she calls him a few days later. After that, the romance truly ensues, and the inevitable complications also appear on the road to the traditional happy ending.
Not a moment of Notting Hill offers anything surprising or fresh, but to be frank, that doesn’t really bother me. Movies can be predictable and retread older material but still succeed as long as they do so in a charming, entertaining manner, and that’s why Notting Hill works.
Actually, I wouldn’t call the film a rousing success, for it tends to drag after a while. The first half of the flick seems to be much more effective than the second, partially because it turns into something of a soap opera during the latter span. The film’s opening portions feel lighter and frothier, and they offer a more winning and compelling experience.
Nonetheless, the movie remains fairly interesting through most of its time, though I must acknowledge that I really dislike the ending. I’ll leave the film’s conclusion undiscussed, but suffice it to say that it finishes in a far-too-concrete manner, so we have absolutely no question how the characters’ lives will proceed.
While I’m happy that this at least avoids the “set-up for a sequel” finales that mar many movies, I still don’t like the fact that we can’t imagine for ourselves how things might go.
In any case, most of Notting Hill works well, largely due to the actors. Grant doesn’t seem to be the world’s most versatile performer, as he usually appears to play a variation on the same stammering, mussy character.
Still, Hugh Grant does “Hugh Grant Persona” well, and his natural charm comes across nicely throughout the film. He makes Will into a reasonably endearing and likeable person who helps propel the movie through its various machinations.
He even creates humor where none should have existed. Some jokes seem terribly obvious, but Grant’s delivery helps make them work.
As for Roberts, she becomes a minor disappointment. I say “minor” because I’m not all that wild about her to start, so she can’t let me down too much.
Nonetheless, she seems somewhat bland and anonymous as Anna. Little of her usual spark and friskiness come through in the part, and she appears vaguely unconvincing, even though she essentially plays a version of herself.
Frankly, the movie does a poor job of letting us know why Will becomes so smitten with Anna other than he’s supposed to do so - after all, she’s the world’s biggest actress, so of course he’d fall for her! However, Roberts doesn’t display a great deal of charm or panache in the role, and she occasionally seems awfully bitchy for the part.
Since this really becomes Grant’s movie, these concerns don’t overwhelm, however, and the supporting cast adds depth to the proceedings. While all seem solid, best of the bunch must be Rhys Ifans as Will’s housemate Spike.
He plays the part with a raw and grimy wit that makes Spike fun and endearing even though he’s mainly an irresponsible loser. Still, he’s a fun loser, and Ifans makes the most of his limited screen time.
Ultimately, Notting Hill brings a minor pleasure, but it feels like a reasonably enjoyable experience. It lacks great chemistry between its romantic leads, but the supporting cast compensates for this problem.
In the end, Notting Hill offers a fairly witty and entertaining romantic comedy. It does nothing to reinvent the genre, but it functions as a good example of the field.