January 28, 2010

When in Rome

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



When in Rome

ROMANCE/COMEDY:

United States, 2010

U.S. Release Date:

2010-01-29

Running Length:

1:28

MPAA Classification:

PG-13 (Sexual Content)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

Kristen Bell, Josh Duhamel, Alexis Dziena, Kate Micucci, Anjelica Huston, Will Arnett, Jon Heder, Dax Shepard, Danny DeVito

Director:

Mark Steven Johnson

Screenplay:

David Diamond & David Weissman

Cinematography:

John Bailey

Music:

Christopher Young

U.S. Distributor:

Touchstone Pictures

Subtitles:

none


Those who were regular viewers of Veronica Mars recognize there's an immense wellspring of charisma available to Kristen Bell that she has thus far been unable to tap in her post-Mars career. When in Rome, despite being a standard-order romantic comedy with little about it that could be considered fresh or original, finally provides Bell the opportunity to exude a little of that Veronica Mars charm on the big screen. She's paired with Josh Duhamel, who moderates the cockiness he displayed in Win a Date with Tad Hamilton and two Transformers movies to the point where he's appealing. The end result is an experience that, for all its predictability and strained attempts at screwball humor, is rarely unbearable and occasionally pleasant. Compared to January's other romantic comedy, Leap Year, this falls more solidly in the watchable zone. The reason is simple: Bell and Duhamel work as a pair while the duet of Amy Adams and Matthew Goode is as melodious as fingernails on a blackboard.

The setup, which owes a little to the 1954 romance Three Coins in a Fountain, opens in New York City, where museum curator Beth (Kristen Bell), who is in the process of preparing for the biggest exhibition of her young career, is greeted with the news that her little sister, Joan (Alexis Dziena), after a whirlwind romance, is going to be married in Rome in a few days. Leaving final arrangements for the exhibition to her assistant, Stacy (Kate Micucci), Beth flies across the Atlantic, determined to spend no more than 48 hours in Italy. At the reception, she connects with the Best Man, a handsome klutz named Nick (Josh Duhamel), but their tentative romance comes to a sudden halt when Beth sees Nick interacting in a decidedly non-platonic fashion with a brunette. Her spirits dashed, Beth takes off her shoes and goes wading in the water at the base of the "Fountain of Love." Adding to her folly, she bends down and removes five coins from the water before the police chase her off. She is, of course, unaware of the local superstition: anyone who retrieves a coin from the fountain will become the object of desire of the one who deposited it. Soon, Beth finds herself pursued by four strangers (played by Will Arnett, Jon Heder, Dax Shepard, and Danny DeVito) as well as Nick. But is he after her because of one of the coins or because he has found true love? Romantic comedy fans know the answer without having to see the movie.

When in Rome successfully argues that solid chemistry between the leads can compensate for a lot of problems, and the production is rife with them. The quirky secondary characters - Jon Heder's magician, Dax Shepherd's self-absorbed model, Will Arnett's painter with a foot fetish, Danny DeVito's sausage king - are more annoying than they are endearing or funny. The film is full of annoyingly obvious "comedy" scenes with characters walking into trees or doing equally clumsy things. In one sequence, Bell doffs her high heels so she can chase a runaway poker chip. I chuckled a few times during a scene in a pitch-black restaurant (where the servers wear nightvision goggles), but even in that segment, the humor is a little too broad. The relationship between the main characters has to be endearing because When in Rome has so little else to offer.

The famous Trevi Fountain has been a centerpiece in two classic films: Three Coins in a Fountain and La Dolce Vita. In When in Rome, the "Fountain of Love" owes a debt of inspiration to the Trevi Fountain, although they are not one and the same. Still, watching Kristen Bell wading through the waters, it's hard not to think of Anita Ekberg. I'd like to believe the scene is an homage, but I can't be sure. This isn't the kind of movie where references to Fellini are going to be noticed. The use of locations in Rome adds a little flavor that is not replicated when the action returns to New York. It appears that director Mark Steven Johnson (whose last unfortunate outing was Ghost Rider), like many Americans, has less trouble romanticizing European cities than American ones.

To the extent that a romantic comedy is intended to represent a fantasy about two attractive people finding the great unattainable - true love - with one another, When in Rome accomplishes the goal. It is neither deep nor intelligent, but it's not intended to be either. The saving grace of the otherwise generic product is that Bell's vivacity and Duhamel's rakish charm allow the viewer to root for them, even if sometimes that rooting goes so far as to wish the script would serve the couple better than it does.

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