Famous for 110 minutes

Film byJonathan Romney

Whatever else Notting Hill may be, it's a thorny problem of categorisation. Is it, strictly speaking, a sequel to Four Weddings and a Funeral? Or just a follow-up? Or is it, as Boyd Farrow suggested in the trade journal Screen International, a remake, pulling the same strings all over again? Notting Hill may not have the same characters, the same plot, or even the same director. But it does have the same writer, Richard Curtis, the same male lead, Hugh Grant, and the same cosy vision of England as a gentle, muddle-along place where a neo-Wodehousian duffer can win the princess in the final reel.

What distinguishes Notting Hill from Four Weddings is that it seems to have been made in the certainty of setting the tills ringing. It has already received nearly as much pre- publicity in Britain as the new Star Wars film, and it almost feels, well, unsporting not to root for this plucky effort of our cinematic cottage industry against the American blockbuster. The buzz around the film primarily concerns its cast-iron chances of success: coming out of the press screening, I kept overhearing the words, "it'll make a fortune".

Notting Hill exudes the precarious mood of empowerment that has fuelled the British mainstream since Four Weddings: the subtext is "This time we do it on our terms". It has attracted a far bigger Hollywood star than Four Weddings' Andie MacDowell - Julia Roberts, playing a character described as "Hollywood's biggest star by far". That's the main box-office appeal of a film that oddly mixes self-effacement with self-aggrandisement: gosh, what's a gentle little London comedy got that the queen of Tinseltown wants to be part of? The poster caption reads, "Can the most famous film star in the world fall for the man in the street?" In literal illustration, Roberts beams radiantly from the poster as Grant coyly shuffles past. However, Grant manifestly isn't the man in the street, but a considerable transatlantic name: with his golly-gosh enunciation, he could easily be royalty. The film's deeply old-fashioned premise could be interesting only if the man in the street were a considerably harder nut - say, Peter Mullan or Ray Winstone.

The central gag is about fame and people's perceptions of it. Roberts plays the movie star Anna Scott, who one day walks into the charmingly scruffy travel bookshop (more like a boxroom that's seen better days) run by the melancholy, boyish William (Grant). Something clicks, and romance ensues. There's something horribly ingratiating about this modern myth of an immortal descending to earth, as if, by coming to London and actually walking around - actually buying her own books - Anna is somehow slumming it. She's the proverbial poor little rich girl, who wants to be loved for herself - and the best candidate is a warm-hearted naIf who is too absent-minded to be overly impressed by her status. Inevitably, we assume that Anna is, to all intents and purposes, Julia Roberts herself, toughing it out in her own gilded cage; presumably Roberts was partly attracted to the role because it allowed her to tell the world about the grandeur and misery of celebrity.

The film's attitude to fame is cleverly duplicitous, only superficially demystifying it. When William and Anna visit his friends for dinner, everyone bursts out in sycophantic blubbering, except for the dull chap who's too unworldly to have heard of her. The joke flatters us: we know perfectly well that if Julia Roberts dropped in unannounced, we, too, would be speechless; but we like to imagine that, as knowing media-watchers, sniggering ironically over fame's rusty mechanisms as exposed in Hello!, we'd be too cool to turn a hair.

This flattery goes hand-in-hand with a curious contempt for the everyday world. A rather nasty scene demonstrates one way in which real people consume stardom: a bunch of Loaded lads going "Phwoar" over the idea of Anna. They are represented as beneath contempt, yet they're the only half-way recognisable characters in the film. The contempt extends to the cavalier treatment of the film's supposed locale. This Notting Hill is a leafy borough of antique markets and quiet private gardens, in no way to be confused with the multiracial, multicultural site of the famous carnival. We're in Paddington Bear's Portobello - and even Paddington was more multicultural than this, being an immigrant from "darkest Peru". Notting Hill is cinema as real estate, advertising a shabby-genteel national village square - Trumpton by another name.

William isn't really an inhabitant of this world, never interacting with his neighbourhood, but mooning absently through it. Watch the show-stopping tracking shot in which he lopes idly across four seasons of Portobello life. Man in the street? His feet never touch the ground. The nearest we get to the man in the street is William's slobbish Welsh flatmate, played by Rhys Ifans. All credit to Ifans that he whole-heartedly steals the show even though required to play a cartoon neanderthal. ("All that awaits me at home," moans William, "is a masturbating Welshman.")

I am, however, being churlish in objecting to such polished entertainment. Did it make me laugh? A few times, yes. Is it well made by the director Roger Michell? Anonymously, but yes. Is it a pleasant way to spend 110 minutes? I can think of worse. And that's precisely what's objectionable about it - the smoothly pre-programmed functioning of a machine for manufacturing charm. As it says in the ad for that DIY product - it does exactly what it says on the packet.

"Notting Hill" (15) opens on 21 May at the Odeon Leicester Square, and nationwide from 28 May

This article first appeared in the 24 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Luvvies, stop moaning