Not In My Wheelhouse: Notting Hill
Welcome to “Not in My Wheelhouse,” a weekly column in which one of our staff members recommends a movie to another that is outside of their cinematic comfort zone!
Notting Hill (1999, UK). Directed Roger Michell, written by Richard Curtis, starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant. Recommended by Ryan Silberstein as a good example of romantic comedy.
How Far Outside My Wheelhouse is Notting Hill?
I don't have anything concrete against romantic comedies, but, next to sports biopics, they're the genre of movie I most actively avoid. Anything you could say against your average romcom-- that they're trope-y, that their plot and character beats are wildly unrealistic, that the acting tends to be awful-- could be said for horror movies, and I love horror movies. My comfort food just tastes different from a romcom fan's (not that you can't like both). The trashy action movies I watch in pursuit of the next Raid aren't any more valuable than the garbage left in the wake of my counterparts' search for the next Philadelphia Story. We both spend a lot of time wishing Gerard Butler was in fewer movies.
Giant moment of shame: In 2012, I ran into a friend at a concert and she told me Nora Ephron had just died. I didn't know the name, so my friend listed some of Ephron's work (You've Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle, the then-recent Julie & Julia), and I asked if this freshly-dead woman, whom my friend apparently adored, had made anything that had a more positive reputation. That memory flashes across my mind a lot. It makes me feel like a bad person about once a month.
Some part of my neglect of the romantic comedy genre is internalized misogyny, to be sure. People don't throw the term 'chick flick" around so derisively today as they did when I was growing up, but I started caring about movies on a "deeper level" around the early 2000s, and I bought into all the baggage romcoms carried with them. I loved High Fidelity the first time I saw it, in middle school, but that was the rare romcom from a man's perspective. I always loved Clueless, but that was about so much more than a need to love and be loved (as if that's some frivolous theme for a movie to have). I've always had a gross condescension toward romantic comedies, and I'm thrilled I get to take a small step that world with my entry in this feature.
I told Ryan the last thing I wanted to watch was a movie where the trailer centers on an older woman saying something surprisingly sexual, followed by that "THIS WILL BE! an everlasting love" song. And then I looked up Notting Hill's director and, wouldn't you know it, the last thing he did was called Nothing Like A Dame, (released as Tea With The Dames in the US), which sounds like an algorithm tried to create a "wow, look at all these coincidences!" British romcom.
I also don't like Julia Roberts. Some of this is because I don't think she's a very solid actor (though she's good in Ocean's 11 and Closer). Much of it, honestly, is her off-screen behavior. Have you ever tried to sit through a Julia Roberts talk show appearance? Remember when she weaponized the paparazzi to publicly taunt the wife of the man she was sleeping with? She isn't Mel Gibson or anything, but she also seems like a shitty human being. Maybe this is all normal. Whom among us, given half a chance, wouldn't have such insane security demands that Hindu worshipers would have to be kicked out of their own temple during a holy day? When you're making something like Eat, Pray, Love, you do what you have to for your art.
Should she be able to be in movies and have an ego? Sure. But so often she's in romantic comedies that explicitly try to sell me on the idea that she's likable. When an actor is supposed to be this ball of pure charisma and a bunch of movie characters are fawning over Julia Roberts' perfection, it's hard to reconcile with, say, the time Steven Spielberg told 60 Minutes he would never work with her again. And maybe that wouldn't be a big deal if she wasn't always playing herself. Or if her ego was the most powerful producer on her movies. I love Tracy Letts, but I've avoided watching the film adaptation of August: Osage County because Roberts reportedly changed the ending to give herself more screen time. Edward Norton and James Cameron leave me with the same feeling. This is my own quirk. I'm sure the last David O. Russell movie was fine, but I'm not going to spend time finding that out. There's enough art out there that I need to be picky if I'm going to get to the stuff that truly connects with me. That doesn't mean avoiding romantic comedies. It has, for the most part, meant avoiding Julia Roberts movies.
So anyway this is a movie where Julia Roberts plays herself. I wrote the last two paragraphs a few days before Notting Hill came in the mail, having no idea this is a movie about a woman who is basically Julia Roberts, and that the art and artist would be harder to separate than ever. I had thought about deleting those paragraphs. They felt unnecessary, maybe a little petty. And then Notting Hill opened with a montage of Julia Roberts being famous but sad (but how can a person be both?, we all ask the screen) and I realized I was in the realms of the unreal. In action movie terms, I was through the looking glass.
Hugh Grant plays England: The Person, a travel book store owner in quiet little Notting Hill. He's recently divorced and he isn't looking for love, but then Julia Roberts passes through his store and it's like he's finally found the person he was always looking for. Roberts invites herself to Grant's sister's birthday party and out-sads her (In a friendly competition to see who has the most depressing life, the sister "wins" by revealing that she's recently found out that since becoming wheelchair-bound, she's unable to have children; Roberts jumps in once the competition is over, notes that she's had plastic surgery and will one day be less attractive than she is at present, and takes the crown). I think we all know that when we tell people we're sad, we secretly hope they say "I am sadder."
Grant and Roberts have a nice day or two, with Grant stumbling through a funny scene at a press junket. Love is in the air. And then it turns out Julia Roberts has a boyfriend (a good Alec Baldwin, who sadly only shows up in this scene, though if we're talking about actors who are tough to like in real life, Baldwin has the same story as Roberts).
Months pass over minutes. Grant spends time with his Kramer-like roommate, played by Rhys Ifans. And then Roberts shows up again, distraught that nude pictures and video from early in her career have resurfaced. The paparazzi are everywhere, and Grant's house is the only place she can hide. And then Ifans spills the beans, the press descend on Roberts' location, and she tells Grant that she'll always regret coming to him. She leaves. More months pass. Roberts shows up at the bookstore with an original painting she knows Grant loves. He rejects her and then, running through everything with his friends and family, realizes that he should have taken her back. "Is that an original?" his brother-in-law asks. "I think it is," Grant says. And, realizing an amazingly rich person has spent money on him, everybody jumps in a car, finds Roberts, and we find out through montage that the two marry and have at least a couple children.
I like this, that the movie gives us a broader sense of where the characters end up. So often romances feel insincere because they focus so intently on the sincerity of the first few moments of a relationship. This isn't quite The Graduate-- the characters never drop their smiles and let us know that they've maybe rushed into something that won't last-- but it also gives us a look at what happens after the meet-cute.
It turns out the meet-cute is my problem. Because it isn't cute. Grant's character finds out he's the "other man," then months later he's told the second chance at intimacy was a mistake and that he's embarrassing, and then when he finally stands up for himself, he's convinced to go back on it all and take Roberts' character back. He's told he's crazy for dumping her not because she's a good person, but because she's a famous actress and he's just some guy who lives in Notting Hill. It borders on abusive.
I liked what the Alec Baldwin twist seemed to mean for the story. I didn't see it coming, and then suddenly it turned out Roberts already had a partner and maybe the second half of the movie would be a deconstruction of romcom tropes and Grant would find love elsewhere. Instead, Baldwin disappeared and Grant got jerked around a few more times.
And I want to emphasize here that the romcom story beats here aren't any better than the ones I rationalize away in my favored genres. The meet-cute, instant romance is probably less offensive than the way people who have sex in horror movies get killed. One subtle difference here is perspective: We aren't supposed to like the killer in a horror movie, and we aren't always supposed to like the kids he's hunting down, either. I want the kids to beat Jason, but the movie doesn't expect me to cheer them on when they come up with some half-baked Scooby-Doo plan to stop him. I'm more of a third-party, watching how things pan out. Notting Hill, though, wants me to be Hugh Grant or Julia Roberts. It wants me to want them to get together. It wants me to be more invested. And so the strings become more visible, and the tropes are manipulating my emotions, not just the emotions of the on-screen characters. I just can't do it, though. Roberts' character sucks too much.
I liked pieces of this. Ifans was fun, Grant was affable, his family was sweet. But the movie wasn't about Rhys Ifans being an idiot, it was about Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts being soulmates who just keep meeting under the wrong circumstances. And that kind of bummed me out. I think I need a romcom to be more like The Graduate or Annie Hall. I need it to have a little teeth and I need it to buck against the genre's constraints. I need the Alec Baldwin character to win.
Passing the Baton
Garrett Smith and I share blindspots in romantic comedies and historical dramas, but I just covered Column A, so he gets a recommendation from Column B. A lot of big, Academy-approved period dramas are a little too austere or sentimental. Sometimes they're just a stage for a bunch of prestigious actors to list off facts. But Milos Forman's 1984 movie Amadeus is a brilliant movie that looks like a big costume drama without pandering to anybody's sense of what those need to feel like. The Tom Hulce/F. Murray Abraham struggle is still the gold standard of screen rivalries for a reason. Have fun, Garrett!