Film Discussion

Notting Hill (1999) – Rom-Com Rewind

The romantic comedy has proved an enduring genre for the silver screen, from the screwball comedy of the 30s to its peak in the 90s, and resurgent popularity in the 2010s. Set The Tape presents Rom-Com Rewind, a series looking at the history of the genre and how it has developed over the course of nearly a hundred years of movie history.

A common complaint about movies nowadays is that there is no originality. Given the number of sequels, reboots, reimaginings, shared universes and the like that dominate cinemas nowadays, it’s an understandable analysis to make, but sequels have been part and parcel of movie making for as long as the medium has been around.

Hollywood’s dependency on follow-ups to smash hits clearly became something more noticeable in the 1970s when follow-ups to Academy Award-winning fare such as Rocky and The Godfather were released, the latter actually winning the Best Picture Oscar itself in 1974. When we get to the 80s, anything labelled as a blockbuster had a sequel commissioned in the hope of capturing lightning in a bottle twice, hence the likes of Beverly Hills Cop, Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours, Ghostbusters and Back to the Future were all turned into franchises with which to try and make more money from the property (let’s not be naive here, in Hollywood, it’s all about the money).

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The romantic comedy genre, however, has been strangely elusive when the possibility of sequels come up. That’s not to say that there haven’t been rom-com sequels, because there have; My Big Fat Greek Wedding got a belated sequel fourteen years later, while the television series Sex and the City spawned a follow-up movie which in itself got a sequel, and now a revival television series (minus its best character) is on the way.

However, Hollywood and the film industry being what it is, and the need to make money off a previous blockbuster hit being a main impetus for the business, what we end up getting more often than not is not so much a sequel but a reunion film between key members of the cast and/or crew. Nobody wants to possibly ruin the good feeling from Sleepless in Seattle’s conclusion with a sequel that puts its characters through a new wringer, so instead, we get You’ve Got Mail, a new story featuring Meg and Tom as new characters in a new romance courtesy of Nora Ephron.

Attempts were made to try and do a sequel to Pretty Woman, but instead, we ended up with Runaway Bride, another high profile reunion between cast members Julia Roberts and Richard Gere as well as director Garry Marshall. They may not be the same characters, but the promotional campaign can go to town with connections to the previous smash hit, thus ensuring a big opening weekend.

The same can be said of Notting Hill. Four Weddings and a Funeral became one of those British movies that the UK film industry attempted to repeat the success off for years after, with every British rom-com being released into cinemas with posters declaring it ‘the next Four Weddings‘. It’s a common thing that happens with British movies; after The Full Monty, every feel-good comedy about characters rising up against the odds became ‘the next Full Monty‘; every Cockney gangster film became ‘the next Lock, Stock‘, and so on and so on until the next big commercial success with which attempts could be made to try and replicate the success.

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When Notting Hill made its way to cinemas in 1999, ‘the next Four Weddings’ was exactly what was expected of it, even if the majority of the cast was different and there was a different director behind the camera. What was key here was the reunion of star and writer. Hugh Grant and Richard Curtis became the faces of a certain type of British export, a seemingly classy British comedy with a romantic twist. Curtis was one of the premier comedy writers in the UK, whose middle-class brand of comedy was, and has forever remained, massively popular; his BBC series Blackadder and The Vicar of Dibley are still being repeated to this day, and his involvement in any British comedy film is emblazoned on the poster.

The combination of writer and actor ensured that Notting Hill would most likely be a hit despite what any reviewers might say, but the ace up its sleeve was when it came time to partner Grant up with another Hollywood actress as his leading lady. Any criticism of Four Weddings and a Funeral was reserved for the performance of its leading actress Andie McDowell, but when it came to Notting Hill, a love story about a book store clerk in the location of the film’s name, falling in love with a massive Hollywood star who happens to be browsing in his shop, one inspired by Julia Roberts, well who else to play the role other than Julia Roberts.

Grant by this stage was a massive star, and a lot was made of his reunion with Curtis, but in the end it probably didn’t really matter given that the film was released during a period better known as peak-Julia Roberts. The very same year, Runaway Bride would make its way into cinemas, while the next would see the premiere of Erin Brockovich, the latter winning her a well deserved Academy Award, and the release of My Best Friend’s Wedding only two years previously had gotten her career back on a very successful track that would also see her star in a plethora of films amongst the Steven Soderbergh/George Clooney/Brad Pitt crowd, not least the critically panned but commercially successful The Mexican opposite Pitt.

Notting Hill is a film that is perhaps none more Grant/Curtis in terms of personality and charm (although its depiction of Notting Hill itself in white, middle-class terms is something that is justifiably criticised), but it is also a film that is unequivocally all about the brilliance of Roberts. Sure, her name in the movie is Anna Scott, but she may as well be playing herself in the film. The cameo appearance from Empire Magazine where Roberts is on the cover with a feature story about Scott may as well be one about Roberts, and you might even be forgiven for thinking that the filmmakers altered an actual issue of the magazine.

If Four Weddings for some was marked down by McDowell’s performance not being up to standard with the rest of the film, then the same cannot be said here. Curtis is a writer that goes for the obvious big sweeping emotional stuff. In lesser hands it can falter, but put into the hands of someone with genuine talent, then the results are somewhat magic indeed.

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The film’s famous scene of Roberts’ character delivering a sweet speech to Grant’s character about how she’s ‘just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her’ is pure rom-com cheese of the highest order, the type of which Curtis can write perfectly but which needs an actress of major talent to deliver. The choice of Roberts to play Anna ensures that not only does this scene work wonders, but it cannot help but evoke an emotional reaction. It’s safe to say that anyone who had a crush on Roberts at the time (fifteen year old me very much did) was probably wishing for Julia Roberts’ character to be saying those words to them.

It’s smushy, romantic cheese the likes of which only the movies could deliver, but it’s also the icing on the film’s very fine cake and sums up one of the finest wish-fulfilment films ever made. What else could be more perfect than a film that revels not only in the sheer screen magnetism of its leading actress but in a story that says that you too could meet and fall in love with a Julia Roberts-type? Sure, it’s unrealistic and far fetched, and the film’s attempts at being about the darker elements of celebrity are explored to a point, but it’s not really the film’s intentions. The romance, the comedy and those stolen moonlight kisses as Ronan Keating sings over the soundtrack are the fantasy that the film wants to sell us and it ends up being hard to resist.

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