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Even if you’ve never been to London, you’ve probably glimpsed Notting Hill. The hippie neighborhood in Performance where gangster James Fox swaps identities with decadent rocker Mick Jagger? That’s Notting Hill. The slightly ominous precinct where Scandal’s high-society types go to purchase some of that trendy new drug, marijuana? Also Notting Hill. Where did Sammy and Rosie Get Laid? Notting Hill again. And the events that brought out the legions of bobbies depicted on the back cover of the Clash’s first album? They didn’t call them the Notting Hill Riots because they happened in Hampstead.
As for the place depicted in Notting Hill, the new film scripted by Four Weddings and a Funeral author Richard Curtis? Call it Never-Never-Notting Hill, or simply Not-ting Hill. Britain’s New Musical Express, in an inevitable but accurate turn of phrase, notes that the movie’s version of British punk and reggae’s old stronghold has been “ethnically cleansed.”
Since Notting Hill is a romantic comedy and not a travel documentary, this might not seem to matter. But what distinguished Four Weddings was its depiction of modern Britain as a multifarious place where not everyone is white, middle-class, and heterosexual. Indeed, the film’s gay characters gave the comedy an essential counterweight, suggesting that the central romance—however improbable and frankly dull it was—unfolded in the real world of diverse, profound, and sometimes sorrowful relationships. For Notting Hill, that world has been swept away, replaced only by one woman in a wheelchair and one insulting ethnic stereotype.
The trend so far this summer is for sequels to be thinly disguised remakes. The Phantom Menace recycles the plot of Star Wars, The Love Letter transfers the thematic premise of director Peter Ho-sun Chan’s Comrades: Almost a Love Story from Hong Kong to Massachusetts, and now Curtis has re-upholstered Four Weddings as Notting Hill. In the previous film, Hugh Grant played a handsome, engagingly bumbling Englishman who falls in love with a glamorous, underwritten American woman; she keeps appearing and disappearing, sometimes involved with another man, other times available for a glamorized one-night stand. All this is identical in the new one.
The differences are inessential: This time Grant is William, who owns a small travel bookshop on Notting Hill’s Portobello Road, and his mysterious paramour is Anna (Julia Roberts), a famous American actress who stars in the sort of special-effects movies that Roberts herself doesn’t make. (This is important, since it’s the principal evidence that Roberts isn’t playing herself.) Anna wanders into the shop, where William is proving his fundamental decency by confronting a shoplifter with absurd gentility. On the street soon after, William demonstrates his fundamental klutziness by dumping a glass of orange juice on Anna. He invites her to his nearby home to clean up, beginning an episodic relationship that’s complicated by her fame and his hesitancy.
We’re asked to believe that Anna is a superstar who’s so little in charge of her life that William must pretend—not once but twice—to be the movie correspondent of Horse and Hound to get to her. (The scenario doesn’t allude to Grant’s own adventures with the press.) And that Anna is charmed not just by the halting William but by his small circle of friends, who are uniformly less compelling than their Four Weddings counterparts. Anna is the American equivalent of Princess Di, Hollywood royalty indulging the awestruck worship of the middle-class British peasantry, but Curtis (also the film’s executive director) barely develops this princess-and-pauper theme.
Aside from one showy long take that depicts the changing seasons as William walks a few blocks of Portobello Road, director Roger Michell (who directed Persuasion, the most decorous of the mid-’90s Jane Austen flicks) doesn’t assert himself. The movie turns on Curtis’ dialogue, which is often as humorous as in Four Weddings and which includes a direct (if slightly simpering) declaration of love that surely will warm the hearts of the sort of moviegoers who like to have their hearts warmed by this sort of thing.
One character, however, renders Notting Hill’s love potion more sour than sweet: William’s flatmate, Spike (Rhys Ifans), a stereotypical depiction of the average Welshman as lazy, drunken, and none too bright. This character won’t offend many Americans, who’ll probably see Spike as just the typical wacky roommate common in American sitcoms. Yet the movie goes out of its way to identify Spike as Welsh, in an ethnic slur that still has bite in Britain. (Ifans’ elusive accent makes his complicity in this insult a little hard to read; he certainly sounded more Welsh in Twin Town and Dancing at Lughnasa.) Curtis tries to redeem Spike’s character by giving him unexpected insight and appeal at the last minute, only to trip over a throwaway gag at the expense of a Japanese businessman. It’s strange that the author of the modestly multiculti Four Weddings and a Funeral would produce a script this xenophobic—and stranger that he would name it after Britain’s best-known melting-pot neighborhood. CP