Notting Hill (1999)
In a British invasion just as dominating as the ’60s rock & roll one, the mid-’90s saw everyone’s favorite Old World-ers make the Nora Ephron formula, well, funny. Notting Hill is probably the best of the Brits’ romcom onslaught, taking a high concept (movie star falls for ordinary guy) and mining a laugh a minute.
Verdict: Say what you will about any man who, like our President, acts confused for a living, but that Hugh Grant sure is a charmer. The film plays to its star’s strengths, allowing Grant to do his nervously stammering thing in the face of Julia Roberts’ cool and in-charge movie star (though it should be noted that the film does suffer from the fact that, though believable, Roberts is never quite likeable). Notting Hill even offers up one of the finest quirky sidekicks in romcom history: Rhys Ifans’ goofy Welshman, a well-meaning idiot that’s part Falstaff and part Kramer. And if that wasn’t enough to push it over the edge, there’s even an Alec Baldwin cameo, in which he does what he does best: plays an arrogant asshole.
Audit Fact: While Notting Hill may rock, it also offers one of the worst films within a film that has ever been put on screen: while Grant is courting her, Roberts is doing publicity for a film in which she plays the lead in a love story set in space.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)
Judd Apatow’s film about Steve Carell’s nerdy virgin on a quest to get laid achieved instant classic status two summers ago. While the log line sounds like it could have turned into creepy middle-aged version of American Pie, the script and performances combine to create a cast of characters that are groin-grabbingly hilarious while also lived-in and genuine.
Verdict: Carell takes a character that could have come off as a serial killer candidate (as the script hilariously acknowledges in the climax) and turns him into a warm, likable guy that you want to identify with despite the whole never-having-touched-a-vagina thing. The film also boasts a tremendous supporting cast—Paul Rudd, Romany Malco and Seth Rogan bring fresh angles to the typically thankless roles of “horny guys on the prowl.” To see just how poorly the role of “horny guys on the prowl” can be executed, check out TBS’ atrocious sitcom, My Boys. It’ll give you a whole new respect for what The 40-Year-Old Virgin’s supporting cast accomplishes.
Audit Fact: After languishing in development for years, the film finally got the green light when studio bosses saw how much money was made by Mel Gibson’s much less funny hit film about a 33-year-old virgin.
Love Actually (2003)
What critics called a saccharin mosaic, we call a flat out enjoyable romantic comedy. What turns your brain into an unquestioning mush of warm feelings more than British romcoms? How about a dash of the ol’ Christmas spirit? This movie covers all the heartstring bases, and while its makers’ minds were very clearly on autopilot when making it, sometimes a sure bet isn’t the worst thing in the world.
Verdict: Again, the foppish Hugh Grant is at the center of it all, this time as a guy who managed to become the Prime Minister of England simply by being charmingly self-deprecating, but still has a tough time meeting ladies. Sound far-fetched? Well, it is, as are many of the eight stories at the center of the film. Just think of Love Actually as the romcom version of Rocky IV: it’s all about wish fulfillment. Can love save the day? Sure it can. Can Hugh Grant get Britain to stop taking shit from an arrogant American President not so loosely based on Dubya? If Rocky can end the Cold War, then you bet your ass Hugh Grant can get England to grow some balls.
Audit Fact: When Hugh Grant announced last year that he was thinking of taking a break from acting, the British economy spiraled into a Depression.
As Good As It Gets (1996)
In this film, Jack Nicholson thankfully plays himself and Helen Hunt unfortunately plays a supposedly attractive blue-collar waitress trying to care for her sick son. While the movie could have focused on the engaging misanthropic lunacy at the heart of one of Nicholson’s finest characters, it wanders off into the realms of heartstring tugging, cute puppies and “you complete me” pabulum.
Verdict: It’s occasionally enjoyable, but you can almost feel your stomach drop as the film begins veering toward a Hollywood ending mid-way through. It’s probably worth watching for the scene in which Nicholson tells a Jewish couple that they should “shampoo his crotch,” but, at the same time, it’s contemptible for what it squanders.
Audit Fact: Sales of the Brussels Griffin dog breed featured in the film skyrocketed by 90 percent in 1996. Instances of Brussels Griffins being put to sleep, however, increased by 90 percent the following year.
She’s All That (1999)
This formulaic commercial success tells the story of an unlikable asshole who bets his equally unlikable friend that a really hot girl who wears glasses might be hot enough to win prom queen if he convinces her to take off her glasses.
Verdict: She’s All That attempts to update an overdone ’80s formula (Can’t Buy Me Love, et. al) by adding newer cars and getting rid of the leg warmers. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t work. Completely devoid of any new ideas, the only reason to watch the film is so that you can get all of the jokes in the hugely underrated spoof, Not Another Teen Movie.
Audit Fact: The filmmakers knew that they wanted to name the film after an outdated slang term, but had a tough time deciding between She’s All That, and Talk to the Hand, Freddie Prinze Jr.
I Love Trouble (1994)
A pair of zany newspaper reporters (the appallingly matched Julia Roberts and Nick Nolte) gets into zany hi-jinks in this tale of a convoluted conspiracy that might as well be lifted from a Police Academy movie. If you can think of two actors better suited to bring out the laughs, well sir, you’re a better filmmaker than Charles Shyer. Also, you’re a better filmmaker than Charles Shyer.
Verdict: Imagine All the Presidents Men if Woodward and Bernstein were sexually involved: there are fewer laughs in I Love Trouble and the thought of the two main characters having sex is about 100 times more revolting.
Audit Fact: Julia Roberts has a rare sexually transmitted disease that makes everything around her less funny. When she has sex with movie producers in order to convince them to put her in their movies, she passes the disease on to them, which explains why she continues to be put in comedies and why her comedies tend to be devoid of anything resembling a joke.