Notting Hill Is Bad, But The Loss of Innocence May Be the Year's Worst So Far

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:18

    Notting Hill directedby Roger Michell Those lips, those eyes: They seem to belong to the sketchpad of some stoned fashion designer bent onmocking his-or the culture's-lust for outlandish ideals. The perfection of herlooks was never balanced or poised but always loud, aggressive, unashamedlyincongruous. Does anyone ever mention that the different features of her face,striking though they individually are, seem to have been drafted by differentarchitectural firms? Can a visage be called postmodern? To me, this simply didn'tadd up: She seemed at once excessively hypothetical and frighteningly real. But now it all falls intoplace. I get what most of the world got years ago: She is a movie star, nothingmore (as if there could be) and nothing less (although she's been obliged toplay less in every film till now). Notting Hill has the groundbreakinggood sense to cast her as a movie star, a very Julia Roberts-like movie star.I don't know if this smart move will qualify the British comedy for the BestDocumentary Oscar, but it struck me as wholly salutary. For once, Julia wasn'tin the least bit puzzling. She would get out of a limousine, twirl her chic,glittery gown for the paparazzi and flash that smile, and I could only think:"Well, of course." There was no question of believability; this was,in fact, exactly as believable as most people ever want movies to be. People, in any case, goto movies to gaze at stars, and if the stars ultimately don't have to be particularlycredible as actors, or as the personalities they adopt in given roles, theydo have to be credible as stars. This is why Julia Roberts would have to beconjured if she didn't exist. Starness is a mysterious, almost mysticalattribute, and she unquestionably has it. There are a few other big female starsin her league, surely-Sharon Stone, Demi Moore, etc.-but none is quite so wellsuited as she to a movie like Notting Hill, where being a star is supposedto connote a soft, creamy, superreal otherness and nothing else, no tangledlife beyond celebrity, no complicating ties to mere ordinariness. Anna Scott, the characterRoberts plays here, is the one thing that stars must be in any film that existsprimarily to fantasize about them: She is available for romance. In London shootinga movie, she stops into the quaint travel bookshop that William Thacker (HughGrant) runs in Notting Hill. The two stars must "meet cute," as theformula has it, and Notting Hill gives us a protracted version of that;it is, in many ways, the film's most clever and agreeable segment. William of course recognizeshis famous customer and is duly flustered. He dithers as only Hugh Grant candither, making awkward, unsolicited suggestions of books about Turkey whilesimultaneously trying to stop another customer from shoplifting. She smilesback attractively and then leaves. A short while later he runs into her-literally-onthe street near his shop and spills the drink he's carrying all over her blouse.As a device for getting her into his nearby flat, and his dithery life, thisis exactly as dumb and irredeemably cliched as it sounds. But it works. Sheis shortly in his grubby kitchen, where flirtation rustles its shimmery wings. There is a crucial difference,a movie like Notting Hill makes you realize, in stars as they exist inmovies and in theater. In both cases our primary impulse is to look, and todo so with as much intentness as we wish. But in the theater physical proximitymeans that our gaze might be apprehended and even returned, thus interruptingthe essential one-sidedness of voyeuristic looking; the actor's role is neededas the screen that allows everyone to pretend that it is the character ratherthan the performer who is being observed. Onscreen, however, there's no chancethat the actor can perceive the viewer, and therefore her role risks being anobstacle; it must justify itself by extending a fantasy of who she might beif she actually walked among us. In Notting Hill,though, Julia Roberts is essentially playing herself, so we are allowed to gawkunstintingly, and the script's first task is to remind us how much more fabulousand beautiful than mere mortals she is. This it does by surrounding her andHugh (our wishful surrogate) with a small gallery of everyday grotesques, includingdivorced William's goofy Welsh string bean of a roommate (Rhys Ifans, who'shilarious when he's not annoying) and gawky, pop-eyed sister, Honey (Emma Chambers).William and Honey also have a set of schlubby friends-far more schlubby thanany Hugh Grant character would have in real life-whose job is to be comicallyordinary and awestruck when the goddess glides into their humble midst. Much about the tenor andaspirations of Notting Hill is explained by the fact that it comes fromthe pen of Richard Curtis, who wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral. Thatsticky-sweet 1994 romantic comedy, which made a major star of Hugh Grant, becamethe most successful British film in history in an interesting fashion: It didn'tdo much business when it opened in Britain, but then became a smash in the U.S.,so that it returned home triumphantly billed as "The Movie That ConqueredAmerica." One might reasonably assume, though, that Curtis was himselfconquered, and that his infatuation with his transatlantic audience has morethan an incidental connection with the romance at the heart of Notting Hill. In fact, you might expandthat idea to say that, resonance-wise, the film relays the notion that Britonscurrently view American pop culture much as smitten, overawed William viewsglamorous Anna. It is as if the old ruler-subject situation were reversed andBrits, like the rest of world, now concede the divine right of American celebrity(even to the point of worshipping the likes of Princess Di in fan-magazine fashion).But if the film is about how they view us, or our pop potentates, it is alsoabout how they wish us to view them. It has been observed oftenenough in recent years that Britain seems to be turning into a theme park versionof its old self with its own active cooperation, a process that involves playingup what appeals to touristic eyes and sweeping the rest under the rug. There'sa fair amount of that going on in this film, beginning with the place that providesits title. Nearly 30 years ago, Notting Hill was the seedy district where gangsterJames Fox and druggie Mick Jagger had their psychedelic, gender-bending pasde deux in Roeg and Cammell's Performance. Though the area has been considerablygentrified since then, it remains a hub of London's large West Indian population.But you wouldn't know that from looking at Notting Hill's Notting Hill, where the black faces are few and peripheral. Of course, what Michell,Curtis and company do to their London location is scarcely different from whatNora Ephron did to the Upper West Side inYou've Got Mail, the recentAmerican film that Notting Hill most resembles. It is part of the OldWorld charm of the latter film that one of its characters invokes classicalmythology in saying William's fate is likely to illustrate the dire consequencesthat befall mortals who fall in love with gods. Fortunately for the easeof our minds in summer, however, we no longer live in a world where the oldmythological punishments apply. Our current celluloid myths dictate that happyendings follow two hours of stars batting their eyes at each other and beinghauled from one frothy complication to another. Notting Hill regrettablygets stupider and stupider as it goes along, and climaxes in a veritable riotof sitcommish idiocies, but it also has the unusual fascination of displayingattractive movie stars while explicitly reminding us of how much we enjoy watchingthem, which ends up being more uncomplicatedly pleasurable than it perhaps oughtto be. The Loss of SexualInnocence directedby Mike Figgis [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="267" caption="photo courtesy of Wiki"][/caption] Hands-down winner of thehotly contested Worst Film of the Year to Date trophy, The Loss of SexualInnocence (how could it not stink, with a title like that?) comes to usfrom Mike Figgis, who has been riding a bobsled toward creative hell since hisinteresting but overrated Leaving Las Vegas was voted best film of theyear by the New York Film Critics Circle four years ago. After that, Figgisdid One Night Stand, which was pretty atrocious but nothing like themind-boggling atrocity that is The Loss of Sexual Innocence. First off, get it out ofyour head that this wanton waste of celluloid might at least contain a decentsex scene or two (or five or 10). It doesn't; it is too "artistic"for that. It is also "experimental" and "daring" in that,rather than deigning to tell any sort of coherent story, it cuts among severalfragmentary episodes from the life of a character named Nic (Julian Sands ishis adult incarnation) and the Bible's Adam and Eve, who are played by a whitewoman and a black man who emerge naked from a lake and are photographed as ifposing for a deodorant commercial. You read that right: Adam and Eve. As in"allegorical." As in deeply, unforgivably boring. There are some forms oftwee Brit pretentiousness that go beyond mere everyday pretension into the realmsof the criminally insufferable. You want to rip the film out of the perpetrator'scamera, stuff it down his throat and throw him off the top of the very tallbuilding on Madison Ave. that houses Sony Classics. I don't like coming outof any movie simmering with murderous fantasies regarding its director, believeme. This is not a fun part of my job. I guess I can apologize to Figgis bestby warning fans of his past films away from this arty, excruciating embarrassment.