Casting is destiny

I just saw “Notting Hill” on an airplane flight – the love story in which Julia Roberts plays a movie star and Hugh Grant an ordinary bloke. Yes, I know that everybody in the world who will ever see this film already saw it several years ago, but I hadn’t. And now I have, so there it is.

The thing that I find most notable about this film (which was, on the whole, quite entertaining to watch, although the plot mechanics creaked rather painfully at times), is the way it speaks to its audience on a meta-level, almost as an essay on the topic of “casting is destiny”. Of course Hugh Grant is not an ordinary bloke. He’s Hugh Grant. Meanwhile, the film makes a big deal out of breaking the fourth wall with Julia Roberts’ character: Because she is pointedly playing a famous movie star, we cannot help but think that we are watching Julia Roberts playing “Julia Roberts” – this wall-breaking is clearly intentional.

Casting in romantic comedies is always absurd. It’s absurd by definition. In order for an audience of millions to believe that two people represent ordinary people in love, that audience insists that these two people be represented by two movie stars – larger-than-life idealizations – genetic royalty.

And so the spectre of Hugh Grant, in the same fictional space, living in what amounts to a council flat with all of his looks and charm intact, both conforms to the conventions of the genre, and simultaneously underlines the absurdity of RomCom casting – since the continued presence of Julia Roberts as “Julia Roberts” makes it impossible for us to suspend our disbelief.

And so I found myself, for an hour and a half, waiting for somebody in the movie, maybe one of his friends in the council flat, or a waiter in a restaurant – anybody really – to suddenly turn to Hugh Grant and say “Hey, wait a minute, aren’t you Hugh Grant?”

In the end it didn’t happen, and somehow I felt vaguely disappointed.

But I suspect most people who watch the film were not at all disappointed. After all, they knew perfectly well, when they saw that gorgeous couple together at the end, that Julia Robert’s character did what she must, as RomCom convention demands (but nobody ever questions, because it would raise way too many questions about why we watch these things), to marry not an ordinary mortal, but within her own elite class. This seems to be what audiences really respond to: Movie star marries fellow movie star – an affirmation of genetic royalty.

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