Hugh Grant blinks compulsively at another impenetrable American woman in Notting Hill, a companion piece to 1994's Four Weddings And A Funeral. This time out, Grant plays the owner of a failing bookshop cozily entrenched in London's fashionable Notting Hill neighborhood. Somewhat recently divorced and shuffling through life behind a stiff upper lip, Grant's existence becomes disrupted following a chance encounter with an American movie star played by Julia Roberts. They fall in love, maybe, but encounter a good number of obstacles as the possible romance stretches out over the course of a couple of years. Both Notting Hill and Four Weddings are the work of writer Richard Curtis, and with this film, Curtis has tapped into a similar vein of relentless pleasantness, even during its characters' most unpleasant moments. Grant remains charming and comfortable delivering believably clever lines and, as in Four Weddings, Notting Hill features a talented ensemble playing his friends. It helps that director Roger Michell paces things deliberately, both in the way he tells the story and in the way he allows scenes to stretch out like natural conversations. As in Four Weddings, however, Roberts' character, like Andie MacDowell's before her, seems more like a device, her romance with Grant more a hook to hang a movie on than a love story. Still, Roberts does a better job of conveying a beating pulse than MacDowell did, and she certainly seems to enjoy taking shots at the nature of celebrity, a task at which the relatively light Notting Hill succeeds, in an offhanded way, better than most Hollywood self-parodies. It may boil down to little more than a minor variation on Four Weddings' formula, but it's an interesting and entertaining one. Literate, witty, and allowing for the possibility of real unhappiness, Curtis' romantic comedies have invented a better formula.
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