Notting Hill is one of those rarities in Modern Hollywood: a romantic comedy that's actually funny, thanks to a witty script and Hugh Grant's effortlessly charming performance as William Thacker, a struggling bookseller in the title London neighborhood. Grant has the stammering Englishman act down to a T. Like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill surrounds the Hugh Grant character with a circle of mildly eccentric and entertaining friends. Rhys Ifans, in particular, steals most every scene he's in as Grant's uncouth Welsh roommate. While the direction by Roger Michell is uneven (the film seems haphazardly edited at times), he also manages the loveliest "time passes" shot I've seen in some time as Thacker walks from his flat to his bookstore as the seasons change around him.
It's in the comparisons to Weddings where Notting Hill's flaws become apparent. While Weddings was as much about Grant's friends as his romance with Andie MacDowell, Notting Hill pushes the circle of friends into the background and pops Thacker's romance with megastar Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) to the forefront. While Roberts is a better actress than MacDowell (but, then, who isn't?), she's simply required to be. Unlike Roman Holiday, which Hill alludes to in having its climactic scene occur at a press conference, her regal figure never develops a personality. Julia Roberts doesn't have the combination of grace and common warmth that Audrey Hepburn had, and Scott's love for an everyday bloke never seems real.
Since Bryant Frazer's Gotham@24fps is in limbo, I might as well note my impressions of Manhattan's newest theater complex here. It comes with all the usual features of the modern megaplex (digital sound, stadium seating, high back chairs), but it's a rather drab and uninteresting building; the only architectural feature of note is the large and open lobby, a rarity in Manhattan. The theaters themselves are quite good, and the two I've been in don't have the shoebox feel of several of the auditoriums in the Union Square 14. (Any architect who puts the aisles of a theater down the center deserves to be smacked.) The Kips Bay's major deficit is its location: the neighborhood is a pleasant but dull residential area with little else of interest, and it's relatively inaccessible by subway. Every neighboorhood gets the theater it deserves.