Cinema: He Loves, She Loves, We Love

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The problem with romantic comedy has never been getting the lovers together. The trick is to keep two people, obviously meant for each other, apart until they--and we--are crazed with frustration. But in the modern world, all the traditional barriers--most notably class distinctions--are breached all the time. There is apparently nothing to keep the boy from getting the girl for more than about two reels of a movie.

Nothing, that is, but the most obviously addling issue of all, the one that obsessively preoccupies everyone, namely celebrity. Why no one up to now has thought to use fame as true love's great obstacle is a nice question. But here, at last, is Notting Hill, and it makes something utterly charming--and very smart--out of the efforts of the world's most famous and desirable movie star, Anna Scott (Julia Roberts), and William Thacker (Hugh Grant), the world's most anonymous bookseller, to get together.

Their meeting isn't particularly cute--she just wanders into his shop on London's Portobello Road one day--and their attraction is distinctly muted. William's charm is of a musing, terribly English sort. He knows his place, which is deliberately narrow, unthreatening. She, in turn, has the wariness of the constantly stalked. She doesn't have a place. She is a bird of passage, always about to leave one movie location for the next. The film's comedy and crises arise out of their attempts to find a refuge where she can settle down and he can open up.

It is a process that screenwriter Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral) and director Roger Michell (Persuasion) allow to develop confidently, digressively. William, for example, finds himself obliged to pretend he's a journalist for a fox-hunting magazine interviewing all those connected with Anna's latest release, a horseless sci-fi epic, at a press junket. On another occasion, he's mistaken for the room-service waiter and patronized by her movie-star boyfriend (a funny, uncredited Alec Baldwin, trying hard for noblesse oblige and delightfully missing the note).

But William's place is not entirely peaceful either. He has a hilariously loutish roommate (Rhys Ifans) who keeps muddling the relationship with Anna, a shop assistant who mistakes her for Demi Moore, a sister who becomes giddily unhinged by close proximity to the famous. Above all, he can't protect Anna from the media frenzy attending discovery of some dirty pictures she posed for prior to her fame.

The movie turns persuasively on that point, but it is finally its casual knowingness on everything from Anna's salary to the contractual prohibitions against excessive bodily exposure in her love scenes that gives the picture honest weight. That and the lead performances. There's winning tentativeness in the way Grant makes his way back to life from depression, an irresistible glow to Roberts when she forgets what she has become and is simply a girl who has found her unlikely Mr. Right. They are edgy charmers, and you have to wonder if the happy ending that concludes the picture will be permitted to last. But you can't help hoping--gratefully--for the best.

--By Richard Schickel