The Phantom Menace Misfires; the Force Is With Julia

Roger Michell’s Notting Hill , from a screenplay by Richard Curtis, turns out to be too wondrously charming and funny as romantic entertainment to be relegated to the role of a strategic adult counter-programming entry in the face of the anticipated child-cult box-office tornado of George Lucas’ ludicrously overhyped Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace . The game of perceived reactions is just beginning, but it must be clear by now that my sympathies are entirely with Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant in their impending box-office laser-gun duel with the Jedi knights and their juvenile video-game accomplices and accessories.

For one thing, Ms. Roberts and Mr. Grant are incontestably flesh-and-blood presences sprinkled with enough stardust to outshine any constellation of digital fabrications in Mr. Lucas’ galaxy. For another, Notting Hill is not burdened with the curse of excessive expectations that afflicts the Lucas extravaganza through all its early pans in the print media. Indeed, Notting Hill seems to have come out of nowhere to revitalize two stellar careers that seemed vulnerable not too long ago in this decade’s cutthroat atmosphere in which a slight stumble or minor reversal can cause the most celebrated Jacks and Jills to tumble down the hill to virtual oblivion.

The knives have been out for Ms. Roberts ever since she walked out on a wedding date with Kiefer Sutherland, and for Mr. Grant after he was caught in a compromising position by the indefatigable Los Angeles Police Department. Still, Mr. Grant never had as far to fall as Ms. Roberts. He was merely a celebrity, but she was a supercelebrity.

After coming up slowly but noticeably in Mystic Pizza (1988) and Steel Magnolias (1989), Ms. Roberts hit the critical and commercial jackpot with Pretty Woman (1990), largely through the volcanic pleasure she expressed with her seismic smile. She was at her peak, but though she scored a fair number of hits thereafter, the media buzz seemed to zero in on her alleged shortcomings and setbacks. Flatliners (1990) and Sleeping With the Enemy (1991) did well enough at the box office, but her performances were not considered to have extended her range. Nor did the highly popular Pelican Brief (1993) count in her favor.

Then came a string of out-and-out commercial flops with I Love Trouble (1994) in which she and Nick Nolte were compared unfavorably with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy; Something to Talk About (1995) an ultra-feminist fable in which Kyra Sedgwick got the best notices for beating up on men with more ferocity than Ms. Roberts; Michael Collins (1996), in which she was not considered Irish enough to share the blarney with the dominant male characters played by Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn and Alan Rickman; and the seemingly catastrophic Mary Reilly (1996), in which she played wildly against type as the glumly subdued maid of John Malkovich’s remarkably minimalist Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In trying to broaden her range, Ms. Roberts was in clear danger of having her price lowered. Fortunately, she bounced back in 1997 with My Best Friend’s Wedding , and the mutterings over her box-office decline subsided somewhat. Ms. Roberts suffered the ultimate indignity when the cackling hens of the junk media had the temerity to criticize her marriage to Lyle Lovett because he was not good-looking enough to be married to a movie star. Now single again, Ms. Roberts should have less of this sniping at her new companion, Benjamin Bratt, with whom she recently appeared in the crime TV series Law & Order , to sky-high ratings, thus spreading her stardom to a second medium.

Mr. Grant reached his peak of popular acceptance as a sexily shy dreamboat in Mike Newell’s Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), the product of the same screenwriter and producing team as was involved in Notting Hill , and consequently endowed with much of the same sly charm and humor. But the story structure is much simpler and less multilayered than it was in Four Weddings . Mr. Grant’s character benefited in Weddings from the dislike the otherwise attractive Andie MacDowell aroused in the audience with her proud enumeration of her many affairs, a dislike intensified by the poignant presence in the background of the rejected Kristin Scott Thomas character. Still, despite his many good performances, Mr. Grant has remained in the shadows for the past five years, his image of appealing sexual reticence clouded by his Los Angeles misadventure.

Hence, much of the magic of the Roberts-Grant pairing arises from what the late, great French critic André Bazin designated as “doubling,” that is, the reinforcement of the screen illusion with a corresponding reality in the life of the actor. Ergo, as Anna Scott, Hollywood superstar, Ms. Roberts does not have to grope for her motivation. She has faced down the media hordes in real life, and she has not only survived, she has triumphed. Similarly, as William Thacker, the underachieving owner of a seedy travel-book shop in London’s Notting Hill, Mr. Grant does not have to fake the feelings of obscurity, inadequacy and embarrassment his character is called upon to express. He has stumbled spectacularly in his time.

Notting Hill has been likened not inaptly to Roman Holiday , but with several crucial switches in the status and character of the two couples. In some respects, Anna Scott is both the movie queen and the aggressive American, whereas William Thacker is both the sleeping prince and the quietly worshipful nobody with no mercenary objectives in his restrained pursuit. There are no other major characters in the mix, no insurmountable obstacles to the relationship except its sheer improbability in real life. What Mr. Michell, Mr. Curtis and their collaborators have achieved is the very difficult task of making Anna Scott just emotionally needy enough, and William Thacker just barely imaginative enough to hurdle the imposing barriers between them.

There is also a democratic spirit in reverse that enables the rich, famous Yank to hobnob with the humble but winningly witty and charismatic Brit. Thacker’s comically unprepossessing family and friends provide most of the gentle humor as they confront the storybook romance in their midst. The ending is happy and ironic in equal measure, but most of the fun is just getting there with the right chemistry and compatibility.

We’ve Waited So Long for So Little

As for The Phantom Menace , if Winston Churchill had spent any time on line to see the mouse that has emerged from the Lucas mountain, he might have remarked that never before in the annals of filmic frenzy have so many waited so long for so little. But don’t take my word for it. Just read all my shameless colleagues who have gleefully jumped the gun on the release date with witheringly scornful blasts at the film’s hollow pretentiousness. Indeed, at the rate things are leaking, I may be one of the last print journalists to review the movie.

Yet I can hardly pretend to be disappointed inasmuch as I was one of the few reviewers who panned the original Star Wars after its first press screening in 1977 at a time when Mr. Lucas’ eventual global blockbuster was in the process of being dumped by its skeptical studio chieftains. While I was enduring this first exposure of Star Wars , I mistakenly assumed that the audience was laughing at it rather than with it. I found it silly, juvenile and grandiose all at the same time. Much to my surprise, even my hard-nosed editors at The Village Voice were shocked that I wasn’t going along with the flow in hailing the kinetic energy and alleged make-believe magnificence of this fable for children of all ages. As far as I was concerned, the Force was a farce, and I still feel this way even though its high priests are played by excellent actors like Alec Guinness in the original, and Liam Neeson in the current prequel.

What I hadn’t expected when I recently attended an invitational screening was that the action would be so tedious on even the popcorn level-that is, unless you groove on endless laser-beam duels that reminded me of nothing so much as Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone thrusting and parrying their way through The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Mr. Lucas and his associates have made references to many screen spectacles of the past in their very busy digitalized mise en scène . But the people in the foreground seem to be limited to the vocabulary of characters in old jungle movies. As the young Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi, the character played by Alec Guinness in the original Star Wars , the gifted Scottish actor Ewan McGregor is reduced to reading lines that could have been rendered by Sabu in his own time.

Aside from Mr. Neeson’s skillfully measured personification of the Jedi knight known as Qui-Gon, the only other bright gleam of human talent comes from veteran Ingmar Bergman actress Pernilla August as Shmi Skywalker, the sadly unselfish mother of little Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), the father of Luke Skywalker. Also appearing in their earliest incarnations are the cutesy droids R2-D2 and C-3PO. I’m sorry I can’t pretend to be thrilled to be reunited with these old friends. Even Jedi Master Yoda doesn’t fill me with goose pimples of nostalgia.

Indeed, I find Phantom Menace terminally uninteresting not because it is some kind of extravagant folly, but because it seems strangely remote from the premillennial jitters. Mr. Lucas is not without a certain technocratic sagacity, but I don’t think he’s communicating even with the young as astutely as he once did. I sense a kind of becalmed genius consumed by his technology and reduced to artistic lethargy, as befits a willing prisoner of his own myth.