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Saturday, Sept. 4, 1999


Guess who's coming to dinner?

Some of your best friends are coming to dinner. One guy, someone whom you've known since childhood and has gone through a rocky divorce, calls to say he's bringing a date.

Oh good. You're happy and curious. Soon a car pulls up, the doorbell rings.

Standing in the doorway is your friend, and a beaming, beautiful Julia Roberts. She walks in, introductions are given and you stand there, agape with a soup ladle. What happens now?

It is blatant negligence that such a situation is not cited in "Household Emergencies," that book that tells you not to panic if you should find a scorpion in your bed or a lion loose in the neighborhood. Absolutely no mention of how to behave when a gorgeous, multimillion-dollar Hollywood film actress chooses to sit down on the living room sofa that belonged to your parents and whose springs are shot.

But hey, don't worry. "Notting Hill" walks you step by step through the entire giddy fiasco. What to do. What to serve. How not to stare foolishly and drool throughout the meal.

By the ending credits you will find yourself confident and tres worldly. Julia Roberts at dinner? Piece of cake!

Of course, it helps that Julia Roberts is Julia Roberts and not say, Sharon Stone, whom you couldn't in a million years imagine sitting on a sofa with bad springs. Roberts strikes the perfect balance of girl-next-door with 2,000 kilowatts of glamour that makes a scenario like this close to believable. Such is her genius and the genius of the filmmakers that decided to deploy this genius.

Attesting further to their talents is the casting of Hugh Grant as her love object and the man who takes her to dinner at a friend's house. An older, wearier and slightly creased Grant, who proves that what he's lost in looks over the years is redeemed 10-fold in wit, humor and charm, charm, charm. Really, it gets to the point when you want to ask everyone in the theater to leave so you could have your own private audience with this guy, to weep and sigh and mutter to heaven: "They don't make men like this anymore, do they? Why did this model go out of circulation, huh?"

Grant plays William, an unpretentious and unsuccessful bookseller in Notting Hill, London. His wife has left him, his business is near ruin and his flatmate is a Welshman called Spike (Rhys Ifans), who seems to have cornered the market on grime and oafishness.

One fine day, American film star Anna Scott (Roberts) strides into his shop, and the world turns over. After an accident with a cup of orange juice, he invites her over to his flat to clean up: "I guarantee we'll have you spick-and-span and standing on the street again in no time, and I don't mean that in any prostitute kind of way."

Anna assents, and the wheels start moving on a love story that's part "Roman Holiday," part "Four Weddings and a Funeral," with one of the most memorable dinner scenes in cinema history.

When it comes to love stories, it looks as though the Brits win over Hollywood, hands down. They certainly know how to keep the cornball factor down to a minimum. In "Notting Hill," director Roger Michell and writer/producer Richard Curtis were shrewd enough to let Roberts handle what there is of the mush detail (which we know she can handle strapped on a hospital bed and under sedation) and spare Grant entirely.

In fact, some female audiences may find the character of William a bit too stodgy, understated and altogether too British Male for words. For example, not once does he utter the inevitable groan-provoking "I love you."

British Male aesthetics, however, is exactly what keeps "Notting Hill" running. Without it, the picture degenerates into just another romantic comedy, and I feel that we've reached a point where those have become ecologically hazardous.

As for Julia Roberts coming to dinner, if she's anything like the part she played in this film you will prostrate yourself at her feet and declare yourself her slave for life. If there could be anything called the Perfect Movie Star Guest, she is it. She's honest. She's considerate. She's completely natural.

A truly awesome moment is when she tells everyone how her life isn't all that great: "Some day, not far in the future, my looks will go and I'll be this middle-aged woman who looks like someone who used to be famous. That's how I'll end up."

You'll want to reach out and hug her. Afterward, you will know what Grant means when he says: "meeting you was . . . surreal, but nice."

"Notting Hill" opens today at the Marunouchi Piccadilly and others.

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