Neither a Rom-Com nor a Weepie…

05/14/2010 4:00 AM |

Letters to Juliet
Directed by Gary Winick

Letters to Juliet may look a little, even a lot, like recent budget travelogue rom-coms Leap Year and When in Rome; it’s got the distracted Baxter fiance of the former and the garish Italian cartoons from the latter. But this movie isn’t actually a rom-com, nor a weeper in the style of Nicholas Sparks: it is a plain old romance, no comedy and not much drama, either. This relieves it from the responsibility of even attempting to wring laughs, which is kind of nice, and also all the movie is: kind of nice.

The meandering begins when Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) travels to Verona with her fiance Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal), a distracted restaurateur; on her own, she visits the supposed house of Juliet Capulet, and learns about the Juliet’s secretaries (real thing alert!), a group of ladies who respond to the many lovelorn missives left on the house’s wall. Sophie, a New Yorker fact-checker and aspiring writer presumably familiar with a backed-up slush pile, discovers a particularly old submission. The secretaries encourage her to write back to Claire (Vanessa Redgrave), a cheery English woman who at Sophie’s encouragement, and through some space-time-mail mechanics I was not entirely sure of, shows up in Verona a few days later ready to search for her lost love Lorenzo. She brings along her cynical (which is to say: secretly brokenhearted and romantic) grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan).

Seyfried, who appears more sun-kissed than all of Italy or possibly Planet Earth, certainly looks the part of the romantic idealist, as she did in Dear John earlier this year—the whole movie looks this way, assuming your romantic ideal is extremely blonde. But as an actress, Seyfried is most interesting when toying with the perversity (or in Chloe, outright femme fatality) underneath her expressive doe eyes; she’s often very good, but lacks the cracked wit to make straight-up innocence more than superficially charming. (As long as we’re talking about romantic fantasies, here’s mine: Anna Faris klutzing her way through a movie like this.)

That superficiality reigns because the movie is so besotted with the idea of romantic signifiers—letters, honeymoons, balconies, and engagement rings, the absence of which on Sophie is supposed to indicate trouble—that mere attraction, meager human attraction, isn’t nearly enough. It’s not just the distracted fiance who wilts against those expectations; Seyfried and Egan do, too, because they can’t shake the reasonable and correct feeling that these characters just met a few days ago.

Since announcing himself with the amusing if extremely slight indie Tadpole, a Rushmore knockoff about a would-be teenage sophisticate wooing older women, director Gary Winick has made a beeline for lady-centric fantasies like 13 Going on 30 (Big for girls!) and Bride Wars (which I assume, sight unseen, to be Dumb and Dumber for self-loathing girls, although I concede that may not have been the original intention). Winick’s interest in faux-sophistication may have abandoned him, but his instincts for smallness haven’t, not entirely: I like the offhand way Seyfried and Egan arrive at their first kiss and quickly retreat, and the way Redgrave gets to play something approximating a real person (albeit an unusually warm and high-spirited one), not a Betty White-ish saucy grandma. It’s also sort of sweet that Lorenzo, once found, is played by Redgrave’s real-life long-sorta-lost love Franco Nero. On the spectrum of tween-appropriate romance movies, Letters to Juliet isn’t offensively awful. But a movie with such earnest appreciation of romance ought to know that isn’t enough.

Opens May 14