When Roman Holidays Go Bad

by |
01/29/2010 4:00 AM |

When in Rome
Directed by Mark Steven Johnson

Opening a romantic comedy in sluggish late winter is a major career checkpoint for the aspiring leading lady, like the glossy magazine cover or, in another time, sleeping with Darryl Zanuck. So, following Amy Adams and Leap Year, it’s TV starlet Kristen Bell’s turn to attempt a destination rom-com, haphazardly pillaging local lore for its tortured hook.

When in Rome for the whirlwind nuptials of her tween-looking younger sister (Alexis Dziena), our gorgeous-but-lonely-because-too-high-achieving-singleton Beth (Bell) meets cute with best man Nick (Josh Duhamel), but can’t be sure he really loves her back—something about the coin she picked out of a Trevi-like fountain ensuring his puppy love.

Bell hurtles through this proving ground with no visible sense of embarrassment. Trained as a musical theater nerd and apprenticed as a star on the CW, she’s a real trouper when it comes to selling impossible dialogue. Veneer-polished wisecracks, crinkly eyes and a twisty mouth put a bright professional sheen over Beth’s clunky, regressive laments about not “believing in magic,” and her impossible dream of a man she’ll love more than her job. If screenwriters David Diamond and David Weissman and director Mark Steven Johnson want us to root for her to take her foot off the gas and settle down, though, they miscalculate with their choice of photogenic nine-to-five. Not a line on her face and she’s already a high-ranking curator at the Guggenheim! Who’d want their heroine to give up such a sweet gig? (Several scenes use Cai Guo-Qiang’s “I Want to Believe” installations as backdrop, and if that’s actually an intended parallel to the supernaturally tinged and lightning-struck love story I can’t tell if it’s subtle genius or incredibly gauche; Bell will, at a late crucial moment, stop to take off her heels while chasing love around and around down the rotunda, which I don’t recall Clive Owen having to do during the shootout in The International.)

Fellow television personality Duhamel, too, goes all in. Male romantic leads, unlike their clawing-for-a-toehold female costars, are generally allowed to condescend to the material for most of the film’s running time—either because their character is written as a “cynic” or because a certain amount of self-awareness is expected from their performance—but, playing a jock in love, Duhamel is prom-date eager and insecure. To have him prove his comic chops, the filmmakers give his character a peripheral vision problem which causes him to fall down and run into things a lot, which is almost equal-opportunity in a way, given how often we’re asked to accept the slapstick gifts of female rom-com stars on the strength of similarly contrived evidence. He gets a hobbitish sidekick, Bobby Moynihan, to provide bromantic comic relief—something like a flipside to the usual sassy best friend (Judy Greer in Katherine Heigl’s January launching pad 27 Dresses would be the recent apex of the type).

This separation of the romantic from the comic is, actually, the problem with many if not most contemporary romantic comedies. Imagine how forced and uncomfortable, if Grant and Hepburn, Powell and Lombard had to play it sticky sweet while letting the all the best bits fall to below-the-title actors—which is the very kind of compartmentalization the unwieldy When in Rome subjects its actors and audience to. A shame: the jury’s still out on fall guy Duhamel, but those of us who fondly remember Veronica Mars (which, pace my own earlier comments about teen-show dialogue, was mostly a pretty damn sparkling show) have pretty firm convictions about Bell’s facility with sophisticated repartee and goofball role-playing.

But When in Rome has, instead, the high-concept cameo players: four other guys whose coins Beth also plucks from the fountain, whose grating pursuit of her is the cause of many an audience-flattering pop-culture elbow nudge (one, a mouth-breathing street magician magician played by Jon “Napoleon Dynamite” Heder, is periodically videotaped by Efren “Vote for Pedro” Ramirez) Their schtick—Will Anrett’s semi-improved lothario act, Dax Shepard’s poke-fun-of-your-character’s-vanity-by-taking-off-your-shirt-and-showing-your-abs bit, Danny DeVito being comically short and splittle-y—makes for a bizarre, self-satisfied hybrid comedy, a date movie trying to rope in the anarchic sketch-comic laughs (and male audience) of the Ferrell-McKay sketch comedies. At 90 minutes on a thin premise, When in Rome feels overstuffed by at least a reel.

After some promising banter on their first meeting, alternately pleased and guarded in the murmury screwball fashion, the closest Bell and Duhamel themselves get to comedy comes from their foot-plus height difference. It’s all the camera crew can do to keep both of their heads in the frame, and he looks like he’s hurting his neck every time he cranes down to kiss her.

Opens January 29