"They go to bed with Gilda and wake up with me," complains the Julia Roberts character in Notting Hill, quoting Rita Hayworth's lament that playing an irresistible character on screen has its drawbacks in real life. That's the paradox at the heart of Roger Michell's film, in which the world's most famous movie star--not unlike the real Julia Roberts--falls in love with a shy, divorced London bookshop owner, played winningly by Hugh Grant.

When Hollywood superstar Anna Scott arrives incognito at William Thacker's travel-book shop in Notting Hill, she wants nothing more than a book on Turkey, but a collision with an orange-juice container ruins her designer shirt and lands her in William's nearby flat. William is genuinely mortified, but Anna disarms him with an impulsive kiss, before breezing out the door. Without his realizing it, William's tidy little world has begun to change.

What follows may seem improbable, but no more improbable than real life. Anna invites William for tea at her hotel, where he discovers that she is the much-in-demand centerpiece of an elaborate press junket. Impulsively, William invites her to his sister's birthday party, and, incredibly, she accepts. There, a small circle of friends and family are stunned at having a celebrity in their midst, but they get over it and Anna feels welcome. But, just as William begins to entertain the notion that Anna might actually like him, her longtime boyfriend--played by an uncredited Alec Baldwin (talk about reverse celebrity)--shows up in London, leaving William the odd man out. But life goes on, and second and third chances turn up for the oddest people.

Grant and Roberts are seasoned comic actors and their scenes together are genuinely charming. In the tradition of romantic comedy, it's inevitable that characters like William and Anna will wind up together in the final reel, but screenwiter Richard Curtis, who penned Grant's breakthrough movie Four Weddings and a Funeral, throws enough obstacles in their path to keep an audience amused and interested. While we never doubt the outcome, Notting Hill offers an enjoyable narrative journey, which actually spans a couple of years. Less satisfying, oddly enough, is Anna's eventual declaration of love, which strikes a false, even mawkish note.

Perhaps surprisingly, given its star turns, Notting Hill has something genuine to say about the nature of celebrity and the effect it has on ordinary mortals--not just William, but his extended family, which appears to be both as normal and abnormal as anyone else's family. Because Roberts herself is a world-class movie star, Notting Hill takes on an added measure of authenticity, while inevitably adding a surreal touch. After all, if Roberts is playing Anna Scott, then Notting Hill's world, real as it might seem, must be--if only temporarily--lacking the real Julia Roberts. Notting Hill toys with the notion of a parallel universe but wisely stops short of suggesting that, when William and Anna bed down for the night, anyone will "wake up with Julia."

--Ed Kelleher