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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

16

The Hairpin Rom Com Club: Notting Hill

"you *must* read this book siddhartha"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 comediespretty 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 differencesrepresented 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 industryAnna 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 actressand 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 happenedyou 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.

sick jacket

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.

so businesslike

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.

would wear

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 Comedieser, Media Studiesfrom the University of New South Wales. You can read more of her writing here and follow her on Twitter at @chloeangyal.



16 Comments / Post A Comment

susan@twitter

One of my ALL TIME FAVOURITES. That God damn Elvis Costello song at the end when all the cameras are going off and the two of them are just smiling at each other in a sea of reporters.

I would love to hold a PhD in Romantic Comedies.

beatrix

One of my favorite moments from Notting Hill !! :))@l

MeghanElizabeth

I definitely had a hideous twinset circa 1999. It was beige, washed me out and did nothing for me shape-wise. I was 15 going on 65. But hey, if it worked for Anna Scott...

HereKitty

That photo captures the exact scene that ruined the movie for me. He's wrapped up in his book, and she's staring off into space. You are married to a bookstore owner, shallow American actress, but just lie there gestating rather than doing anything that even remotely suggests that you have an interior life, like READING.

I also hate Love Actually with the white-hot fury of a thousand suns, so.

iheartoxytocin

Some actresses are not so well-dressed outside of times when they're actually styled. For example, Shannon Elizabeth dressed normal-girl badly for a while because she wanted to be kind of rebellious in her out-of-the-spotlight life. I only know because she was on What Not to Wear.

Also: so jealous of your advanced degree! It sounds awesome.

cordovan sofa

@iheartoxytocin Agreed on the non-styled clothing. When this movie was shot (let alone when it came out) was not exactly pre-internet, but it was early baby days internet, when among other things photos took FOREVER to download. You didn't have sites like go fug yourself and tom and lorenzo and perez hilton posting sidewalk shots every day. Stars got styled for the red carpet, but probably mostly dressed themselves, and you know? That's not necessarily their forte.

Even now, in our current era-of-stylists, I've been on a lot of film sets and to a lot of movie rehearsals, and by and large the well-dressed movie star looking people are the makeup artists. The stars are just actors, and if you've hung out with professional actors, especially in London, you know they're more focused on FEELING things. They're not models. (Except the ones who are models trying to cross over, which tends to be difficult for them because they're too pose-striking and can't relax into the scene.) It's the crew's job to make the actor look good; it's the actor's job to sell the moment.

I've also spent time around some incredibly rich non-movie people, and plenty of them dress for comfort, not glamor. Fashion is a skill, and not everyone has it, and not everyone is interested in it.

jamo5866

I love rom coms and this one is one of the best!

MarianTheLibrarian

So excited for a Rom Com club! I haven't watched Notting Hill in ages.

katerrific

I like this movie a lot but I have always had a problem with the "just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her," part. That line does nothing for me. Am I just super unromantic? However, I can't hear the word "indefinitely" without picturing Julia Roberts and her big ol' smile, so I DO have some kind of heart.

dontannoyme

Sideways was the worst for this slacker unattractive man deserves and gets amazingly attractive girlfriend thing. And worse because it was somehow supposed to be a subversive, alternative film. Not subversive enough to make the point that men don't get what they want just because they are men and they want it.

whiskeyrobot

Oh my god how did I not realize I could become a Dr. of rom coms! Nothing has ever made me want to apply for grad school more. The paper I had the most fun writing in college was about The Notebook, which I had never seen prior to writing the paper, but then watched about 20? 25 times? Ok so maybe I only watched it about 8 times but then replayed that scene where he's planing the wood shirtless a few more times...for research! My favorite is probably Mystic Pizza. I love this series; it's everything I didn't know I needed from the Hairpin!

AnyaSmith

What a fantastic idea! Now I have an excuse to re-watch It Happened One Night. And, katerrific, I'm with you on "just a girl"--the line and the delivery.

alex73

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geo80

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50826539@twitter

I like this movie a lot, though cringe at a lot of its missteps, but the styling of Julia, oh my goodness. She takes a leap up in attractiveness when she is unclothed, in bed. I get the "ordinary clothes for her ordinary life" but if she went to that date in a white T, jeans and a casual GAP jacket, she would have looked so much better.

a note about the montage at the end, which makes me drool with romance, the scene of JR and Hugh getting out of the limo was filmed at a real premiere (I have heard) to get a real crowd and replicate the nerves of it being only one take. I love hoe she reassures him.

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