It's not that often you see two such well-known actors as Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant playing so close to type. In the 1999 romantic comedy "Notting Hill" Roberts plays a glamorous movie star with a kind and decent heart, and Grant plays a shy, common man with a kind and decent heart. Yet the result, in spite of the typecasting, is a warm, affectionate, mostly laid-back charmer of a film, a piece of fluff you'll forget about two minutes after you watch it but during which you will probably enjoy every minute. The folks at Universal have seen fit to provide buyers with a special-edition two-disc set with plenty of bonus features to accompany the film.
The movie is a fairy tale, and writer Richard Curtis ("Four Weddings and a Funeral") knows how much the public loves a fairy tale. Borrowing a title from the old Jerry Lewis flick, this one could easily have been called "Cinderfella." It involves the world's most famous Hollywood star, Anna Scott (Roberts), dropping by one day to the tiny travel bookstore of William Thacker (Grant) on Portobello Road in London's Notting Hill district. He is a thoroughly wholesome guy, intellectual, modest, quiet, self-effacing, and appealing; more important, he appears to be unaffected by her celebrity, and she seems to admire all of these qualities.
They meet again moments later when he inadvertently runs into her in the street, spilling orange juice over the front of her clothes. He invites across the street to his flat to change, she agrees, and although she stays only a few minutes, they strike up a mild friendship. When she leaves, William thinks of all the things he should have said to the world's most beautiful and enchanting woman. She returns his favor that afternoon by inviting him to her hotel for tea; one thing leads to another, and before long he's taking her to a birthday dinner party for his younger sister, Honey (Emma Chambers).
It's all "surreal but nice," as William says, and quite amusing besides. I mean, how many times has a person fantasized about meeting a movie star or a prince or a princess and both falling instantly in love? And what would you say if you were suddenly thrown into such a circumstance for the first time?
Scriptwriter Curtis and director Roger Michell recognize that a simple romance isn't enough, however, and populate their story with a variety of colorful supporting characters and the expected plot conflicts. We don't get to see many of Anna's friends, save an uncredited cameo appearance by Alec Baldwin as her American boyfriend, but among William's close circle of friends and relatives are a delightful crew. As the sister, Honey, Ms. Chambers is wonderfully and endearingly dizzy, a Gracie Allen type. As William's roommate, Spike, Rhys Ifans is the epitome of dumb, clumsy, and crude, but again in an endearing and never offensive way. Tim McInnerny plays William's best friend, Max; Gina McKee plays Max's wife invalid wife, Bella; and Hugh Bonneville plays the loquacious and slightly inept Bernie. Look, too, for uncredited cameos by Matthew Modine and Simon Callow. The plot complications arise as anticipated from William's ordinariness and Anna's fame, their ups and downs beginning to feel a little too contrived only by the movie's second half.
I found "Notting Hill" as much fun this second time around on disc as I did when it was first released to theaters. Perhaps naively, I liked the idea that a rich and famous celebrity might be as down-to-earth and honest as Anna, recognizing as she does the fleeting nature of fame and that she is just a person inside, despite her price tag of $15,000,000 a picture. I liked the idea that there might be some people like William in our world, a fellow who doesn't go hysterical with goddess worship and can see Anna as a real, albeit talented and gorgeous, human being. I liked the question the film asks about whether rich girls really ever do fall in love with poor boys. It's the same question raised with different results and for more serious metaphoric reasons by F. Scott Fitzgerald in "The Great Gatsby." Gatsby didn't think rich girls fell for poor boys, and he was probably right. Anna may be attracted to William because of his unaffected manner and lack of pretense, a welcome change from Hollywood sham.
But I have to wonder if William isn't attracted by Anna's celebrity as well as by her personality. Could he really be so meritoriously unbiased and clear-headed as not to think about what she represents and the money she makes? In any case, their relationship is humorous, touching, and, ultimately, involving.
Appropriate to a lightweight venture of this kind, the picture qualities of the film are lustrous. Universal offer the film in two formats, a 2.13:1 anamorphic widescreen rendering on disc one and a slightly cropped pan-and-scan rendering on disc two. The full-frame version loses about 25-30% of the image right and left but sometimes provides a small amount of additional information top and bottom. Colors are consistently rich, deep, and brilliant, a joy to look at. There are a few minor instances of shimmering lines, nothing really, and grain and other digital artifacts are non issues.
The audio is available via either Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS 5.1. The former has little to do in the rear speakers save convey some small amount of musical ambience, but, otherwise, it yields excellent, natural results across the front channels.
As for bonus materials, both discs offer English and French spoken languages, English and Spanish subtitles, and eighteen scene selections. Disc one contains, besides the widescreen film, an audio commentary with director Roger Michell, producer Duncan Kenworthy, and writer Richard Curtis; twelve minutes worth of deleted scenes; a fourteen-minute "Spotlight on Location" segment featuring interviews with the cast and crew; a three-and-a-half-minute featurette, "Seasonal Walk on Portobello Road," complete with a map of the area; a music highlights menu; production notes; some DVD-ROM materials; and cast and filmmaker biographies and film highlights. Disc two provides the full-frame version of the film, plus four minutes worth of "Hugh Grant's Movie Tips"; two music videos--Shania Twain's "You've Got a Way" and Elvis Costello's "She"; a five-minute photographic montage; a theatrical trailer; an international trailer; and several of the same items as on disc one, like the audio commentary. It's a pretty fair number of items, even if they don't add up to a whole lot of actual time.
Now, since DVDTown's editor brought up this next issue in a Forum message a while back, a word about the fancy new packaging on this release. Universal have created a beautiful design by doing up the box in thin, flexible, clear plastic supported by two stiff, clear-plastic inserts to hold the discs. The affair folds in thirds, with the transparent cover showing a picture of Hugh Grant folded over an underlying picture of Ms. Roberts. Nothing snaps into place; the thing just folds together and apart. It is quite striking in appearance, really, but as a diehard pragmatist I prefer the tried-and-true keep case. A keep case securely holds the disc or discs in place, protects the cover art, and allows for the inclusion of an informational booklet, if desired. This lovely new "Notting Hill" affair cannot hold an insert because it would simply fall out the bottom. Additionally, because it's done in clear plastic, the writing on the back is very hard to read, what with the back (or bottom) of the second disc showing through; plus, there is no place for a scene selections list. What's more, if the plastic cover ever gets damaged, I'm afraid it's the end of the box altogether; there's no replacing it the way you can a keep case. I suppose it's all a matter of aesthetics vs. practicality, and I personally favor practicality.
"Notting Hill" is not quite up to Ms. Roberts' "Pretty Woman" or Grant's "Four Weddings and a Funeral," but it does offer up some cute and innocent fun in a make-believe setting. And like every good romantic tale, this one has a lovely, heart-grabbing ending. It's a sweet film.