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Pretty woman Julia Roberts gives her fans what they want in the romance "Notting Hill."

Nuttin' New In "Notting"


As the first big romance of the summer, "Notting Hill" seems a surefire hit. First, the movie stars the lovely and likable Julia Roberts and the boyish charms of Hugh Grant. Second, the sparks between the two are not computer-generated. And third, the frothy concoction is directed by "Four Weddings" helmer Roger Michell. Cha-ching! Hear that box office cash drawer ringing up ticket after ticket?

It matters not that this fairy tale falls apart under too close or too cynical a scrutiny. This is fantasy at its best, where we all want love to conquer all but we're not really sure it will. For me, that was the most enjoyable aspect of "Notting Hill." While director Michell and screenwriter Richard Curtis don't stray far from the expected in this star-crossed romance, they do keep us wondering whether or not there will be a happy ending.

The hook, as they say in Hollywood, to this fairy tale is that Grant of the floppy bangs is Cinderfella and her high-cheekboned highness Roberts is Princess Charming.

Roberts is Anna Scott, a full-fledged movie star who pulls down $15 million a role. Grant is William Thacker, the owner of a small bookstore in the trendy Notting Hill section of London's West End. Our William is portrayed as an average bloke, trying to make a go of his shop and spending time with his wacky Welsh flatmate, Spike (Rhys Ifans). Poor William, he has no love life to speak of.

All that changes when fate sends an incognito Scott into his bookstore. In London to promote her new movie (which is deliciously hyped as "Close Encounters" meets "Jean de Florette"), she's also trying to avoid the press. There are definite sparks between the two, but our Will is first and foremost a gentleman. Later, as happens in the best romances, William literally runs into Scott again, soiling her attire. Quite embarrassed at his clumsiness, he invites her to his place to clean up. To his surprise, Scott accepts his offer.

Ah, yes, from then on, we watch enthralled as these two pretty people struggle to see if what they feel is real. From prying flatmates to an obnoxious boyfriend to the crush of the paparazzi, Anna and Will find themselves in a tempestuous relationship.

As Anna and William, Roberts and Grant are picture-perfect. Both give their fans exactly what they want in "Notting Hill," tweaking their charms occasionally but not by much. That's not the case, however, with newcomer Ifans. He makes quite an impression as William's flatmate, Spike. He's funny and endearing, despite his unwashed looks and some of the worst teeth I've seen on-screen in quite a while. But Spike's role in the movie is almost too much. He is a pure caricature, and his bawdy slob routine begins to feel forced and unnatural, a distraction to the rest of the fantasy.

The same could be said about the entire movie if you insist on taking it at anything other than face value. Although the cast and filmmakers adroitly keep reality at bay, there are a few moments when they come close to shattering our suspension of belief. When Roberts' Anna tells Grant's William that she's just "a girl standing in front of a guy asking him to love her," a few discreet scoffing noises could be heard from the audience at the sneak I attended.

In the vein of "You've Got Mail" and "Pretty Woman," "Notting Hill" is a pleasant romantic fantasy. It takes few chances, but the audience it's aiming for takes enough chances itself in the real world. They don't necessarily want more on-screen. "Notting Hill" is a breezy summer fling, a chick flick of the first order that will also become the first date-movie of the season. My advice: Accept and

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