There’s a stage in this kind of project where you realise how far you’ve come and how far you have yet to go. I’ve watched in the region of twenty Hugh Grant movies and I have roughly twenty left to go. Which is a bit daunting, if I’m being honest. It also highlights something, I think, about how fleeting fame both is and isn’t. Because basically the stuff that Hugh Grant is famous for was all released between 1994 and 1999 with a massive build up and a massive tail end where he sort of deconstructs the types of character he made a reputation portraying in quite a narrow window of his career. Anyway, onto the films!
This is unironically one of my favourite films ever. It is the absolute apotheosis of both Hugh Grant and Richard Curtis. Hugh plays a hopeless, bungling individual who somehow manages to come across as an everyman figure even though he is an unbearably posh independent bookstore owner living in actually quite an expensive bit of London, all of whose friends are also city stockbrokers, small business owners, or those kind of quirky dropouts who somehow exist in films or on television without ever needing to pay rent or buy food. Notting Hill has basically all the same social issue as Four Weddings and Funeral in that it portrays as quintessentialy British and relatable a lifestyle that is accessible to only a tiny, tiny fraction of British people. It also doesn’t help that the film is named after one of London’s more ethnically and culturally diverse areas, but is, well, not terribly ethnically or culturally diverse.
Honestly, I’m kind of assuming if you’re reading this blog you know the plot of this film. Hugh Grant is ordinary bloke. Julia Roberts is screen goddess. They fall in wuv. It should, by all rights, be the most cringe-inducing thing ever. I mean, for fuck’s sake, there’s actually a scene where Hugh Grant says “whoops-a-daisy”. But it somehow works for me. And I should probably say at this point that Notting Hill has probably been part of my mental landscape for so long that I’ve lost all ability to engage with it criticality.
I mean I’m aware it’s got issues. You can read its gender dynamics in lots of different ways, some of which are problematic. Not only is there only one black guy in the film but he’s specifically an American actor, because apparently there aren’t any black people living in Notting Hill in this universe. The portrayal of Bella’s disability is something I am super unqualified to talk about and I suspect mileage will vary a lot here. It’s a recent development so it’s understandable she’s bummed about it and the film does go quite a long way to demonstrate that she still has a perfectly good life, a successful marriage, and a high powered job. But, at the same time, “is in a wheelchair” is kind of her defining personality trait. And there is the bit at the end where she specifically uses that to get special treatment in a hotel. Because, of course, we all know having any kind of marginalised identity means people immediately bend over backwards to do everything you say and give you free stuff.
I also suspect that how you read the central premise of the film (which from a certain point of view is “powerful, successful woman is sad because she hasn’t married Hugh Grant yet”) depends a lot on what lens you’re viewing it through and what narrative assumptions you bring with you. I think the reason I like Anna Scott’s arc in Notting Hill is that it’s very much the arc the hero would get in a more conventional romance. Essentially, she is successful, financially independent, unavailable and emotionally damaged, all of which are classic romance hero qualities. Meanwhile Hugh Grant’s role is to endure and understand her idiosyncrasies, give her unlimited emotional support, and ultimately provide her with a place of sufficient safety that she can be vulnerable. She even does most of the big romantic gestures, right down to the alpha trope where you demonstrate your affection to someone by giving them a gift that is simultaneously thoughtful and obscenely expensive, thereby reconciling the tension between material wealth and emotional sincerity. And I can see that for some people the “just a girl standing in front of a boy” line could come across as diminishing the value of everything Anna’s achieved but, from a genre perspective, it’s just the classic grovel scene, but switched up because it’s a female character delivering it.
And it’s true that naïve gender reversal doesn’t always code as subversive to all readers. Because, obviously, the wider dynamics of a scene in which a powerful, successful woman begs a man to like her are very, very different from those of a scene where a powerful, successful man makes a similar plea to the heroine. But (and I’m aware I’ve said this as lot) it works for me. I think it helps that Anna Scott is—to me, at least—quite a nuanced and well-developed character, largely due to the fact that Julia Roberts was able to bring an awful lot to the role. Over the course of the film you get a remarkably clear sense of who Anna Scott is, what her public persona is, what she’s like in private, and how those things are different. Taken baldly, the premise of the film is difficult because it’s set against a cultural backdrop which assumes that any woman who prioritises her career over her personal life will be nebulously unsatisfied because she hasn’t got a man. But what you get from Anna Scott in Notting Hill is that there are specific things about her life that make her unsatisfied and that in Hugh Grant and his lifestyle and his friends she finds something that she specifically values. So, to me at least, instead of reading as “career woman needs man to make her happy” it reads as “complicated person with high pressure job, short temper and secret love of whimsy and quietness that is not indulged in their life as it currently stands is better off having found other person to share those things with”.
And I’ve just realised I’ve spent this whole section of my Hugh Grant review talking about a character who isn’t played by Hugh Grant. But this is so much the archetypal Hugh Grant role that there isn’t much to say.
Goodness of film: 5. I love this film.
Hugh Grantiness of film: This should probably be a 6 (out of 5) because this is the Hugh Grantiest Hugh Grant that ever Granted Hugely.
Mickey Blue Eyes
The DVD box for this film is a picture of Hugh Grant looking dorky with a hot Italian-American woman on one side and an old Italian-American man on the other, all above the tagline “They’ve created a mobster”. That basically tells you everything you need to know about this film.
I went into this one with a sense of trepidation because “90s comedy about English guy who finds out his fiancée’s family are mobsters” is, well, an inherently trepidation-inducing premise. I honestly think I wound up liking the film a lot more than I would have if I’d seen it in 1999. I get the impression that its this-movie-writes-itself mix of every mafia movie cliché known to screenwriting with every Hugh Grant movie cliché known to Hugh Grant would have felt pretty tired at the time. But going into it twenty years later with zero expectations and the surprisingly helpful awareness that Hugh Grant would spend the rest of his career parodying his earlier heartthrob image and that at least 40% of the cast would go on to be in The Sopranos made it genuinely quite good fun. I mean, it was terrible and stupid, but it was terrible and stupid in exactly the ways I wanted it to be terrible and stupid.
Perhaps a scene that best sums up why I enjoyed Mickey Blue Eyes far more than I probably should have is the one in which Hugh Grant and his fiancée’s mafia father are on their way to a meeting with two other Mafiosi and, for reasons of plot, Hugh Grant has to pretend to be a Kentucky mobster called Little Big Mickey Blue Eyes. This necessitates the mafia dad teaching Hugh Grant to talk mobster which involves training him to repeat really classic bad mafia movie catch phrases like “fugeddaboudit” and “get outta here”. So you have a situation in which a cartoonish over-the-top Hollywood stereotype of a gangster is trying to teach a cartoonish over-the-top Hollywood stereotype of an Englishman to talk like a cartoonish over-the-top Hollywood stereotype of a gangster. It’s a kind of negative genius.
The plot, such as it is, involves Hugh Grant’s fiancée accidentally murdering Artie Bucco from The Sopranos and Hugh Grant and the mafia dad having to go to extraordinary lengths to cover it up, leading to a climax at their wedding in which Hugh Grant has to fake getting shot so that they can go into witness protection but he does it really badly because he’s Hugh Grant. Spoiler: they all live happily ever after.
Goodness of film: I do not know. 3 maybe? It’s very serviceable for what it is but what it is … is stupid.
Hugh Grantiness of film: I think I have to give this one a 5. He plays a bumbling Englishman who is never entirely sure what’s going on, does a variety of silly voices, and fails spectacularly at doing typically manly things.
Small Time Crooks
This one gave me pause because it’s a Woody Allen film and, obviously, Woody Allen is problematic. And if you’d rather not engage with a film from a director who is the subject of credible allegations of sexual abuse I completely understand that. Honestly, I was seriously considering skipping this one but my sense of completeness combined with the fact that I already reviewed something directed Roman Polanski and a whole bunch of things from the Weinstein Company made me feel it would be hypocritical to draw a line here.
Anyway, Small Time Crooks is about a small time crook (hence the name) played by Woody Allen, and his wife played Tracey Ullman. It’s quite an odd piece in that it starts with Woody Allen planning an overly convoluted bank heist, most of the middle involves Tracey Ullman becoming an unexpected cookie billionaire, and the rest of the plot revolves arounds her aspiration to be part of what I guess these days we’d call the “liberal elite” and his desire to very much not. Part of her arc involves getting Hugh Grant to teach her to be classy and Hugh Grant deciding that he will break up her marriage and seduce her for the money.
I’m never really sure how to feel about stories with the outline “poor person becomes rich, discovers they were better off being poor”. At the risk of oversimplifying, they always feel to me that they’re about justifying social inequality. There’s this intrinsic implication that the only people who deserve to be rich are people who are already rich, and that poor people are poor because they’re happier that way. Which is, y’know, not how it works. And, to be fair, I suspect that part of the problem I had with this film was that it seemed to be grounded in a class consciousness that is very American, and I don’t know to what extent its portrayal of that consciousness felt inauthentic to me because I’m not American, and to what extent it felt inauthentic because it was reinforcing ideas and stereotypes that are harmful no matter which country you’re in.
The core conflict of the film seems to be between Tracey Ullman’s character (Frenchy) who, once she acquires wealth, either wants to or believes she has to act out a particular type of lifestyle that is associated with a particular kind of education and set of values, and Woody Allen’s character (whose name I’ve forgotten … it might be Ray?) who doesn’t. Although I say “who doesn’t” but actually the real issue is that Frenchy and maybe-Ray both uncritically accept what I consider the film’s most troubling assumption: that being rich and having a particular set of values are inseparable from one another. Frenchy feels that because she wants to be rich she has to like opera and classical music and art. Ray-or-whoever feels that because he doesn’t want to like opera and classical music and art he therefore can’t be rich. And, worse than that, now that he is rich that he can’t have any of the things he actually likes (which seem to be eating meatballs and watching movies).
I usually avoid talking about US politics on this blog because it’s a million miles away from being my place to do so, but I found this film particularly difficult in a post-Trump world. Again, I’m very much outside my lane here but I feel that a big part of the narrative that got the Donald elected was one that framed class struggle as being fundamentally about values, not economics. It defined the choice as being between a wealthy corrupt elite, defined by coastal cosmopolitanism, and an honest base of hard working, real Americans, defined by the equivalent of meatballs and movies. With my European socialist hat on, I’d observe that both that campaign and this film present a similar and deeply problematic idea: that the true threat to ordinary working people isn’t uncontrolled corporate interests or rapidly widening wealth inequality, it’s people who like opera.
The annoying thing is that, on account of Woody Allen being irritatingly good at his job, Small Time Crooks is actually quite a well-structured film. The dialogue is sharp, there’s themes and shit, and some very funny set pieces. I just can’t get behind a story that, from my point of view, so fundamentally mischaracterises how class works. And the thing is I do believe that the way we define which types of culture have social cachet is worth examining. And if the film’s thesis was just that eating turkey meatballs and watching White Heat is no less valid or “classy” a way to spend your evenings than eating frogs’ legs and watching opera then I’d have no problem with it. Where it lost me was the point at which it seemed to suggest that you can only enjoy eating turkey meatballs and watching White Heat if you haven’t got any money and you can only enjoy eating frogs’ legs and watching opera if you are not only wealthy, but were born to that wealth. And, for that matter, to suggest that trying to develop an interest in frogs’ legs or opera where you had not previously had one was somehow a betrayal of your essential self.
Anyway. Hugh Grant is in the movie, and it’s actually quite an interesting early example of Hugh Grant As Wrong ‘Un. Basically, he has all the usual Hugh Grant charm and mannerisms, but employs them for sinister purpose.
Goodness of film: I should probably give this a 3 because it is so very competent, and Tracey Ullman is always a pleasure to watch. But for my personal tastes, it came out as a 2 because of all the class stuff.
Hugh Grantiness of film: 3.5. He’s in it quite a lot, but doesn’t show up for long enough that I was thinking “hey, is Hugh Grant going to be in this or not?” quite a while before he actually appears. He’s playing a subversive take on his iconic persona that would later become a secondarily iconic persona. I enjoy this side of Hugh Grant because I think it displays genuine nuance to be able to meaningfully portray a character who is pretending to be like the character you always play but is secretly not.
Bridget Jones’s Diary
Hugh Grant films watched: 4 (v. good)
Cigarettes smoked: 0 (because I don’t smoke)
This one is complicated. Bridget Jones was one of those weird cultural phenomena which we were told very firmly defined what it was like to be a particular sort of person (in this case a woman in the 90s) and which people, therefore, tend to identify very strongly with or react very strongly against.
Bridget Jones’s Diary is a very thinly veiled re-imagining of Pride and Prejudice. There are number of quite subtle parallels, like the behaviour of her mother, her relationship with her father, and the implied difference in social class between various characters. Then there are the less subtle parallels. Like that the hero’s name is literally Darcy and that in the film he is literally played by Colin Firth. I think what makes it fascinating as a Pride and Prejudice riff is that most P&P secondary media (like Lost in Austen, Austenland, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Death Comes to Pemberley) tend to focus on the Regency trappings and the romance element, but largely lose track of the fact that Austen was also a social satirist.
BJD, on the other hand, not only parallels P&P in terms of the relationship dynamic but also in terms of its exploration of being an unmarried woman in the time in which it is set. In some ways, it’s here the parallels are most interesting (and also probably most depressing) in that Lizzie Bennett and Bridget Jones are both basically screwed by completely arbitrary social conventions that haven’t changed anywhere near as much as you might expect in two centuries. Lizzie is considered practically a spinster because she’s unmarried in her early twenties and is under financial duress because her family’s estate is entailed away from the female line. Bridget Jones is considered practically a spinster because she’s unmarried in her early thirties and is under financial duress because living alone in London is frankly only just economically viable and, while she has a career, there’s a sense that her culture and her industry won’t take that seriously because they assume she’s just doing it until she gets married.
I do confess to having very mixed feelings about the fact that, with the best will in the world, Bridget Jones is basically bad at everything. And obviously that’s partly because it’s a comedy so the main character being put in embarrassing situations is part of the deal. But when a particular work of fiction has a reputation (whether intended or not) for embodying a particular category of person, it’s a little bit messed up when that person is as presented being so utterly incompetent. With my most generous hat, I can see that part of the point is that Bridget Jones is supposed to be you as your anxieties fear you are, and that’s part of what makes her relatable. But it does make for slightly uncomfortable viewing twenty years later. I mean, Renee Zellweger is incredibly charming in the role, which means you do really like Bridget Jones, but there comes a point where liking her seems almost patronising. So many embarrassing things happen to her, and she makes so many bad choices, that to carry on sympathising with her you have to tacitly accept that she’s not capable of ever doing better, which is a problematic way to feel about your heroine.
The thing is, I do see why Bridget Jones (problematic as she sometimes is) has value, because we still ultimately live in a world where the range of things that the mass media tell women to be is massively narrower than the range of things that the mass media tell men to be. My perception here is that cultural trends in the depiction of female characters tend to pendulum between over-competence and under-competence, neither end being totally unharmful.
I watched an interesting video on YouTube a few months ago about the differences between film!Hermione and book!Hermione in the Harry Potter series. And one of the things it talked about was that while book!Hermione is very clever and good at magic she also has a lot of fears and insecurities, and doesn’t know much about the wizarding world (because Muggleborn). Film!Hermione, by contrast, is (at least according to the video) basically just brilliant at everything. Now, often, when you get a YouTube complaining about competent female characters in stuff it’s somebody from the more conservative end of the spectrum going on about feminist conspiracies and the pussification of culture (or whatever). But what this video pointed out was that by not allowing movie heroines to have flaws all we’re really doing is creating another set of unattainable and unrealistic cultural expectations for women and girls to live up to which is, y’know, not helpful. I’m not sure but I suspect that the power of Bridget Jones for people who strongly identified with the character twenty years ago (and who may still identify with her today) lies in the fact that she’s a female character who is neither invisible nor invincible.
And, weirdly, thinking about it there’s an extent to which Bridget Jones is kind of the female equivalent to a Hugh Grant. She’s bumbling, socially awkward, stumbles into embarrassing situations all the time, and is terrible at pretty much everything she tries. It’s just that with Hugh Grant that automatically comes across as a subversion of a cultural norm that tells us men are supposed to be masters of everything, and therefore we find it endearing. Whereas with Bridget Jones, depending on which bits of media you’ve been consuming most recently, it’s either a liberating recognition that women are allowed to be messy and flawed or else it’s a problematic recapitulation of the notion that women are all insecure, man-obsessed and hopeless.
Also this film has a scene where Hugh Grant is bad at fighting. I love watching Hugh Grant be bad at fighting.
Goodness of film: I’m giving this a 4, even though it’s borderline impossible to tease out the ways it’s problematic and the ways it’s affirming, because it’s often both at once. I mean, I didn’t even touch on the way her relationship Daniel Cleaver starts with him sending her some really not appropriate flirty emails that become even more not appropriate in a post #metoo environment. But the film just has so much heart and such a sense of fun that I can’t not like it.
Hugh Grantiness of film: I have to give this a 5. I know Hugh Grant isn’t in it very much but just like Notting Hill is the epitome of good Hugh Grant, this is the epitome of Evil Hugh Grant. Basically Daniel Cleaver is William Thacker if he’d cheated on Anna Scott, doubled down on his publishing career and ditched his loser friends.