Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Nodding Hill

Gallant Hugh tries to make light work of hauling Julia's wearisome narcissism

By Hadley Hury

JUNE 7, 1999:  At one point in the new romantic comedy Notting Hill, Julia Roberts (indistinguishably "playing" Anna Scott, Hollywood's biggest film star) bemoans her worst fear: " and one day not long from now, they'll discover that I can't really act, and I'll just be a sad middle-aged woman who was once famous for a little while." Given Roberts' chiseled jawline, large glittering eyes, and mane of glossy hair, she may manage to cheat her industry's notorious biological clock a bit and not fall victim to Anna's worse nightmare. But given her rather self-absorbed and numbingly vacuous performance in this latest "Julia vehicle," she might be well-advised to sock away some of her $15 to 20 million per-film salary just in case enough people ever do begin to realize that her range even as a screen personality du jour, let alone as an actor, is showing its limitations.

Directed by Roger Michell and scripted by Richard Curtis, Notting Hill tries (laboriously) to be an inverse, postmodern Cinderella tale, in which the poor-little-rich-girl-megastar is saved from a life of inauthenticity and irony by the adoration of a good and simple man. Although the film's focus and tone are maddeningly erratic – it never decides whether it is comic romantic fantasy or earnest drama -- and the pace at times close to somnambulant, it does have one thing going for it. As Anna's good-humored and astonishingly patient Prince Charming, Hugh Grant gives a subtle, well-rounded, performance, rich in emotional shading and deftly comic. He manages to play more than Curtis' screenplay actually provides William Thacker, his bookshop-owner character, filling in the gaps and kicking over the traces of banal cliché with his characteristic charm and intelligence. Roberts, on the other hand, seems to play less than is scripted for her unsympathetically put-upon, rather whiny movie icon -- and that makes for a level of passive-aggressive presumption many filmgoers may find not only remote and uninteresting but actually off-putting. Notting Hill is the sort of project that needs real star power to carry it. One wishes for an Anna with the saving comic grace of an Audrey Hepburn or the eccentric glamour and brilliance of a Judy Davis. Anna spends most of the film indecisively playing William along and feeling sorry for herself about her fabulous wealth and fame, and it is painfully clear that Roberts is not approaching this as a send-up or even as a character. We're supposed to feel for her, wretched, media-hounded, lovelorn film goddess that she is. She stands around inertly with the camera dutifully locked on her for interminable lengths of time, her large eyes regularly misting over as if she were wearing glycerine for eyeliner, waiting for the film to come to her.

Like a true Prince Charming, Grant (accompanied by a vividly interesting supporting cast) does. He gives the audience the only thing to wait for in a romance that mistakenly compensates for its meager comedy and equally meager emotional depth with a listless pace and overstretched scenes that assume a universal awe for the mere presence of Miss Roberts. Her performance might be taken more seriously as an elaborate modeling photo-shoot, but two hours in a thin script as a fairly inane movie star provides too ample an opportunity for the audience to witness her ineptitude with comic technique and her smug, prescriptive, rather prosaic choices as a performer. Grant, faced with the same underdeveloped script, manages to make the film's uneven tone work in his character's favor; his William not only gives the story its brightness and energy, but its sense of discovery and humanity as well. Even those who queue up to see America's Sweetheart are more likely to remember her co-star in this outing, and to wonder why sweet William even wanted to bother with Anna in the first place.


SLC Punk

If the words Salt Lake City and punk seem mismatched, you have already gotten the point of budding filmmaker James Merendino's comic picaresque of flaming youth rebelling against the constrictive mores of the Mormon capital. Stevo (Matthew Lillard) and sidekick Heroin Bob (Michael Goorjian), with their blue hair, mohawks, and freaky duds, have a lot to flame about; SLC Punk! is set in the mid-1980s, with rife Reaganism exacerbating the already-unyielding conformity of their monolithic community. As rebels, Stevo and Bob leave much to be desired, in spite of Stevo's claim that he wants "to bring down the system." The two spend most of their time hanging out in the city's small oases of punkdom, going to parties, and engaging in vicious gang-style battles with rednecks. Merendino makes transparent efforts to link the film's random vignettes into some vague statement about individual liberty and creative expression, but this aspiration is undone by the headbanging shallowness of his anti-heroes. Despite hating rednecks because they "are America incarnate," Stevo and Bob have crawled from beneath another side of the same rock. The film's only real integrity comes in Stevo's rancidly colorful voiceover narrative; it's nonstop, rapid fire, and funny, part would-be tough guy, part psychedelic Tom Sawyer.


Trekkies

If you didn't get your fill of gawking at sci-fi nerds during media coverage of the Phantom Menace premiere, then you need to see Trekkies, a documentary whose title is self-explanatory. The 90-minute film is directed, with some rather fuzzy camera work, by Roger Nygard, previously known for low-budget comedies like Suckers, and it's hosted and co-produced by Denise Crosby, who once played Tasha Yar on Star Trek: The Next Generation (the series' equivalent of David Caruso, she left after one season to move on to "bigger things" and promptly dropped into obscurity). Together they explore what makes Trek fans so fanatical, and the unusual subject matter compensates for their amateurish technique.

In the interests of full disclosure, I will confess that when I was in college eons ago, I attended my share of Trek conventions, walking around in a T-shirt that proclaimed, "Reality Is A Crutch For Those Persons Who Are Unable To Handle Science Fiction." Thus, as a certified geek, I can tell you that science-fiction fans have a special label -- "mundanes" -- for people who are not in fandom. In other words, they don't see themselves as freaks or misfits; from their point of view, their lives are exciting and fulfilling, while everyone else is boring and unimaginative.

As you watch Trekkies, though, you'll notice that a distinction has to be made between those who consider fandom a hobby -- however all-consuming it may be -- and those who actually believe they are a Vulcan or a Klingon. There are several people in this film who appear to cross the line. Scariest of all is Barbara Adams, the Little Rock, Arkansas, woman who gained national notoriety when she showed up for the Whitewater jury in her Star Trek uniform. Even when not in uniform, it turns out, she wears her Starfleet insignia and communicator at all times, explaining that as "commander" of her local Star Trek club, she must set a good example for her "crew." Is this woman's life so empty that she has to believe she's someone else in order to feel important? The filmmakers interview her employer and colleagues, who -- luckily for Adams -- tolerate her "quirks" because she's a good worker.

Other oddballs in the film include a man who's dressed as a woman for no apparent reason; a Klingon wannabe who pays $1,400 for Worf's headpiece makeup; and an electronics wiz who builds a replica of Captain Christopher Pike's enclosed wheelchair (from the original episode "The Menagerie") and zooms down the street inside of it.

The majority of the fans, however, come across as a little silly but harmless -- such as the folks who dress up their pets in Star Trek uniforms. One of the most interesting people profiled is Dr. Denis Bourguignon, a Florida dentist who's decorated his entire office in Trek paraphernalia and requires his staff to dress like Starfleet officers. Yet he seems like a nice, normal guy, and his patients love the Trekkish atmosphere, saying it helps them relax and forget they're at the dentist.

Another who seems to be using his love of Trek in a positive way is Gabriel Köerner, a precocious, articulate 14-year-old who takes you on a tour through his fannish pursuits, from model-building and uniform design to creating special effects on his computer (he's planning to make a movie). This is a kid who has a sense of purpose and seems happy with what he's doing; you don't worry about him taking a shotgun and blowing away his classmates.

The loosely structured film zips from one topic to another, from a California woman who hosts a radio show called Talk Trek to a Minnesota linguist who teaches eager students how to speak Klingon. There are also interviews with most of the Star Trek actors, who share anecdotes of their most memorable encounters with fans -- some touching, some just plain bizarre. You're left with the impression that while Star Trek -- like any other field of interest -- has its lunatic fringe, most of its followers are just people who admire the show's message of optimism, who hope that its depiction of a peaceful, prosperous future will one day come true.

And if they choose to identify themselves with that fictional universe -- like the guy who legally changes his name to James T. Kirk -- who are they hurting, really? Consider David Greenstein, who wears a Starfleet uniform on trips to the supermarket and expresses a desire for cosmetic surgery to "Vulcanize" his ears. "People ask me, 'Don't you have a life for real?'" he says. "And I tell them, 'This is my life for real.'"


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