The Hairpin Rom Com Club: Notting Hill
by Chloe Angyal
Welcome to the first meeting of the Hairpin Rom Com Club, with Chloe Angyal as your gracious host.
I just spent the last four years watching and studying and writing about romantic comedies — pretty soon, dissertation graders willing, I’ll have a PhD in Media Studies, whereupon I’ll basically be a Doctor of Rom Coms. In four years, I’ve watched upward of 150 romantic comedies in thorough solitude, which is exactly what the Hairpin Rom Com Club is not going to be. (Except for the pantslessness: we can all still be pantsless.) We’ll be traveling through time, watching movies from throughout the twentieth century as well as contemporary ones. All rom coms will be available on YouTube, Netflix streaming, Amazon Prime, or for rental at the Apple iTunes store. I’ll tell you in advance what the next movie is going so you have plenty of time to watch it, and you are of course free to tell me which movie you think we should watch next.
When people find out what I’ve been studying, they usually ask what my favourite rom com is. Sometimes I say Warm Bodies: I think it’s a great twist on an age-old plotline, and one of the smarter and more surprising rom coms to come out in recent years. Killer soundtrack, too. But my favourite rom com qua rom com is easily Notting Hill. If romantic comedy requires paint by numbers — and, like most genres, it does — here’s a movie that paints perfectly. Yes, it’s utterly predictable and wholly unoriginal, but within the confines of the genre, it’s very well done: well acted, with witty banter and a pretty setting and a satisfying conclusion that makes you feel like you got what you paid for and expect in a mainstream rom com. And this year, it turns 15. So here we go: Notting Hill, directed by Richard Curtis on the heels of Four Weddings and a Funeral, and starring his favourite muse/alter-ego/mophead, Hugh Grant, with Julia Roberts as his new Andie McDowell-esque love interest.
Basic plot summary for those of you who haven’t seen the movie: William Thacker is an unlucky-in-love bumbling Englishman with no business acumen and a collection of hilarious friends who are frankly far more interesting than he is. Anna Scott is the world’s biggest movie star who, despite having access to all the clothes in the entire world plus many people who will pick out her clothes for her, wears a series of truly dreadful outfits throughout this movie. (More on this later.) They meet by accident, then she kisses him, then they go and meet all his friends and his sister on their first date, then he discovers she’s dating Alec Baldwin, then someone leaks old naked photos of her to the press and she hides out at William’s house and they have totally meta sex (Anna says that her contract stipulates that “you may show the dent at the top of the artist’s buttocks, but neither cheek” and then that’s exactly how much of Roberts’ butt they show!), then the press gets photos of her at his house and she storms out in a huff, then time passes and he doesn’t get over her because how do you get over a bottom dent like that? She asks him to take her back and he says no but she gives him a priceless work of art anyway because why not. Then he changes his mind and there’s a car chase and she announces that she’s staying in England forever and then they slow-smile at each other but not as slowly as Stephen Colbert is smiling at you right now.
Notting Hill is what some scholars of the genre call a “special relationship” rom com: a British man and American woman overcome their minor cultural differences — represented here by his charmingly diffident awkwardness and her brash mouthiness — and make it work. Four Weddings and Funeral and Wimbledon, all made by the same production company that made Notting Hill, are also special relationship rom coms. Notting Hill also signals the start of a wave of rom coms that are aware of or about the film industry — Anna is an actress who makes rom coms herself, and of course the movie is all about the challenges of being or being with a highly visible actress — and it paves the way for rom coms that are even more self-referential, like Friends With Benefits.
This is perfectly serviceable rom com. In fact, it’s more than serviceable: it’s charming, and legitimately funny at some points, and thanks to William’s quirky friends, it even manages to feel fresh while rarely deviating from the playbook. If these people care about William, I found myself thinking, maybe I should, too.Hugh Grant is so affable that you hardly get annoyed at how the film expects you to find his impending financial doom rather hilarious (an important lesson here: if your business is going under, you should probably try to find a big-deal actress to marry).
Then again, it’s thanks to the success of this movie that Love Actually happened — you can see the roots of Prime Minister Hugh Grant’s Love Actually voiceover, the one that so enrages Lindy West, in the voiceover opening of Notting Hill. If you dislike Love Actually, this is a strike against Notting Hill, just as the existence of The Ugly Truth is a strike against Legally Blonde, since the former wouldn’t have happened without the success of the latter: they’re directed by the same guy.
Even for those who are prone to disliking formula, Notting Hill isn’t all bad news. It passes the Bechdel Test: two women who have names (Anna and Honey) talk to each other about something other than a man (even if most of what they talk about is… shopping.) We get to learn a little about how Anna became who she is: she was a struggling actress, and at some point, she had plastic surgery, and she’s had “a series of not-nice boyfriends.”
But, as is more common than not in the rom com, there’s little depth to the history of either lead. We don’t know where in the US she comes from, or how she feels about the movies she makes, or why she decided to become an actress. We don’t learn a whole lot about William’s history, either, but at least we meet his friends, his coworker, and a member of his family. We get no such context for Anna, no hint that she even has friends. For a movie that emphasizes the notion that celebrities are real people with real lives, we don’t get much of an actual look at Anna’s real life — outside of her romance with William, at least.
Back to shopping: Anna Scott is the world’s most famous movie star, yes? Generally speaking, famous movie stars in rom coms (like Sarah Marshall) do not dress like they just discovered the phenomenon of clothes two days ago. Anna, who is a huge deal, wears fancy dresses to world premieres. She got paid $15 million 1999 dollars for her last movie and can buy any piece of clothing on the planet. And yet, here is a non-exhaustive list of things Anna Scott, millionaire and professionally photographed person, chooses to wear:
A twinset and flip flops. A sparkly midriff turtleneck top with a sneakers. Whatever this jacket is.
Seriously, in the most iconic moment of this movie, our leading lady wears a twinset and flip flops. She’s just a girl, standing in front of a boy, wearing a twinset and flip flops.
And the absolute kicker: A grey suit with a mauve shirt, buttoned all the way up, with a tie.
Anna: are you a 1980s lady stockbroker hoping that no one on the trading floor will notice that you’re a woman? And that ponytail. And blue eyeshadow. Anna, fire your stylist, or ask Spike if you can borrow his “I Love Blood” shirt. It’s absurd, but it’s still a safer bet than that suit and tie.
And William. Ah, William. Dull, floppyhaired William. You’re basically a button-down shirt with a wig glued onto it, but somehow, you convinced the world’s most famous woman to give up her career and her country to sit on a park bench with you while you read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, thus teaching a generation of dull and hirsute men to believe that they, too, can shag and shack up with a rich and famous starlet. This isn’t solely a Notting Hill problem: TV and movies are full of what David Denby calls “slacker striver” romances, in which average guys land amazing women (I’m looking at you, Knocked Up, She’s Out of My League, and literally dozens of American sitcoms). And it’s a staple of Hugh Grant movies of the 1990s, in which he’s a staggeringly average (but well-coifed and toffy-accented) duffer who is hopelessly outmatched by women, major life events, and basic social interactions (Nine Months, anyone?). You’d have hoped the shtick would have gotten old by 1999. Alas, it didn’t, and it still won me over, and Anna Scott too.
The next movie in the Hairpin Rom Com Club will be the first modern Hollywood romantic comedy, 1934’s It Happened One Night, starring shirtless Clark Gable and The Great Depression. You can watch it totally illegally on YouTube here, and buy or rent it legally on YouTube here.
We’ll reconvene two weeks from now to hash this one out over a drink of your choice. Pants optional.
Chloe Angyal is a freelance journalist and is thisclose to getting her PhD in Romantic Comedies — er, Media Studies — from the University of New South Wales. You can read more of her writing here and follow her on Twitter at @chloeangyal.