The summer of 1999 had an unusually high number of comedies; Phantom Menace scared the studios from bothering with too many big action films, and so week after week we were treated to South Park, Big Daddy, Austin Powers 2 and American Pie. And of those titles, many of which are considered quote-unquote “guys’ movies,” the film I've kept coming back to over the years is Notting Hill. Yes, I mean the romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant. Now, if you know anything about me you know I can usually be found watching gory horror movies or playing equally violent video games, but I am proud of my now 14-year appreciation of the film – an appreciation you should share.
The casting is perfect: the two actors were the first choices for their roles, and it's damn near impossible to imagine anyone else saying the lines of William Thacker and Anna Scott. Grant has rarely been better as his usual stammering, dryly hilarious Englishman, and Roberts deftly finds a way to take what is occasionally a very unlikable character and make her endearing. We not only understand why William is drawn to Anna in the first place, but also why he is able to keep welcoming her back into his life after she shuns him over and over. It isn't easy to elicit sympathy for a pampered celebrity after she's treated our hero so badly, but Roberts manages wonderfully – far better than she did playing another deeply flawed woman in the same summer's Runaway Bride. Her “I’ll regret this for the rest of my life!” speech from Notting Hill is still painful to watch.
Credit for that goes to Richard Curtis, the film's screenwriter who also gave us Four Weddings And A Funeral and Love, Actually. It's remarkable how well his screenplay balances the comedy and drama, all the while juggling a fairly big cast – William's large circle of friends, his dimwitted assistant at the bookstore, and even the concierge at Anna's hotel create memorable characters even though some of them only have a few seconds of screentime. On that note, as great as Grant and Roberts are, Rhys Ifans nearly steals the film as Will's idiot roommate Spike, who is either inadvertently helping or hindering their relationship with every appearance. One minute he's saving the day by remembering Anna's alias at her hotel, the next he's destroying her chance at privacy by drunkenly spilling her location to his friends at the pub. Apparently the first cut of the movie was three and a half hours long; it's not hard to imagine taking that extra footage and shaping a film solely about William and Spike as odd couple roomies with Julia Roberts in a supporting role as Will's girlfriend.
Also working in Notting Hill’s favor is how much it downplays Anna’s celebrity as plot impetus; we only see a few clips of her films, cameos are kept to a minimum, and there isn't much insider baseball jargon to alienate the viewers who simply don't care about the ins and outs of the junket system (an approach that would not carry over to Roberts' later America's Sweethearts). Curtis and director Roger Michell are careful to make those scenes – such as William's inadvertent stint as a movie journalist – some of the funniest in the film; we don't need to know how a press day works to appreciate the hilarity of Will trying to ask questions about a film he's never seen. After all, William knows very little about Hollywood himself – he thinks Leonardo DiCaprio is a director. By focusing on the ways Anna’s presence impacts their lives rather than giving us two hours of Grant bumbling around movie sets and Hollywood studios, the film remains almost shockingly realistic – we never doubt for a second that this situation is within the realm of possibility.
And I think that's the secret of Notting Hill’s success and enduring popularity with women and men (even one of the names behind the Saw series considers himself a fan). Of course there's always the overly macho pal who will mock me about it, but I've found myself talking about this film with my guy friends more than my own wife over the past decade, which certainly isn't the case for... well, any other romantic movie I find myself enjoying. This is the exception because the syrupy elements that plague the genre are kept to a minimum – they spend half of the movie apart, after all! – and even though Roberts gets top billing, the focus remains on Grant. When Anna leaves, we stay with Will in Notting Hill, rather than follow her to Hollywood. Grant is much easier for the average guy to identify with than a "Sexiest Man Alive" type like Matthew McConaughey or Ryan Reynolds, and that’s yet another way in which Notting Hill appeals to the hairier half of the population.
So fellas, don't be ashamed to give Notting Hill some love! It's a great movie regardless of what you'll find next to it at the video store, so don't be scared off by the Reese Witherspoon and Sarah Jessica Parker titles neighboring it on the shelf. Next time you're talking movies (perhaps at the bar, when their guards will be down), tell your friends you write for "Horse & Hound" and see who gets the joke. They won't be able to deny it then!
This was originally published in the "Cheers! A Celebration of Pub Life" issue of Birth.Movies.Death. See Notting Hill at the Alamo Drafthouse this month. Houston - I'm hosting this screening on Tuesday, August 20! -Meredith