By Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
November 12, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

What could possibly be more fabulous than fame? The world at your feet, servants at your beck and call, stalkers at your door. Okay, so the last one isn’t exactly a perk, but it’s a small price to pay for being, oh, Julia Roberts or Hugh Grant, right? Notting Hill, starring these two spectacular beings in all their toothy, dimpled glory, suggests otherwise. The film, which has been brought to you by the producers and writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral, is dressed up as a romantic comedy, but it’s actually a biting — and occasionally brilliant — look at celebrities and the people who love them.

You can guess the story line from the box cover and the credits: No way did Hollywood pay these two millions so that they could hate each other at the end of the celluloid day. If Roberts and Grant can’t work it out on screen, there’s certainly no hope for the rest of us. So relax, sit back, and ignore the plot—not a difficult task, since an episode of ”Friends” can be more difficult to follow. What is worth paying attention to is the actors’ gleeful mocking of their own personas.

Roberts plays Anna Scott, an American movie star who seems to have quite a bit in common with Julia Roberts, down to the $15 million-a-pop paycheck. When Anna wanders into a travel bookstore owned by William Thacker (Grant) in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood, sparks fly between the princess and the pauper, the superstar and the commoner, the American and the Brit. How far out of Anna’s world does William orbit? He thinks Leonardo DiCaprio is an Italian director. But the point is, Anna is just a girl, a fact of which she’ll remind you with the cringe-inducing line ”I’m also just a girl, standing in front of a boy.” You practically expect her to break into ”What Do the Simple Folk Do?”

While Anna and William get down to the business of courting, Roberts and Grant get up to some fun. What’s it like to be a celebrity at a dinner party and have a stranger embrace you like an old war buddy? How do you politely respond to the oblivious guest who wonders if you make a living at your job? If you’re a star as written by Richard Curtis and directed by Roger Michell (Persuasion), you do it with no small amount of humor, grace, and self-effacement. When Anna slips into whine mode over the rigors of her job (oy, the weight watching), William’s friends swiftly set her straight.

Grant has the juicier role and he knows it: Unlike Roberts, he’s not expected to make comments about Mel Gibson’s butt or the horrors of the stalkerazzi; he also clearly revels in the chance to take down the journalists who have tortured him in the past. When William poses as a writer in order to see Anna at a press junket for her new movie, his imbecilic questions are clearly a sampling of those Grant himself has endured too many times: ”Did you identify with the character you’re playing?” ”Did you enjoy making the film?” ”Is this your first movie?”

There are, alas, some bumps in Notting Hill, and they become all the more apparent when Roberts’ grin isn’t big-screen wide. Her Anna flirts with being too badly behaved, and Grant’s incessant blinking and Stooge-like silliness can wear. But the actors are so willing to poke fun at themselves, it would be small-minded not to join in the game. Even if you’re a celebrity journalist who’s heard the words ”Did you identify with the character you’re playing?” come out of your own mouth. B+

  • Movie
  • PG-13
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