Letters to Juliet (United States, 2010)

May 11, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Letters to Juliet Poster

When it comes to romantic movies, I have adopted a philosophy. All that's really required to craft an affecting love story is that the protagonists are well-developed, the actors playing them evidence a degree of sexual chemistry, and their relationship is allowed to unfold on screen. Details of the plot are relatively unimportant since all but the best romances follow an expected trajectory. Sadly, of late, romantic movies have become increasingly less convincing, with star power trumping attraction and characters stalling before they're half-developed. Letters to Juliet, I am happy to report, successfully applies the romantic formula and, as a result, provides a relaxing 105 minutes. If it drags a little toward the middle, I'm willing to cut it some slack. What's important is that it avoids the unfunny jokiness and juvenile tendencies that define too many romantic comedies while also sidestepping the mawkishness of the Nicolas Sparks-inspired dramas. By falling somewhere in between - more serious than the average comedy and lighter than the typical drama - Letters to Juliet feels just about right. This love story isn't going to appeal to those who don't appreciate the genre; detractors will not become adherents. It is sweet and sentimental and embraces the fantasy (although it would have worked better without the treacly pop songs on the soundtrack).

Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is a top fact-checker for The New Yorker magazine and, as such, her job is not unlike that of a detective. Her heart's desire is to write a piece for the magazine but her boss (Oliver Platt) doesn't want to lose one of his best fact-checkers. While on a "pre-Honeymoon" vacation to Verona, Italy with her husband-to-be, Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal), Sophie uncovers the perfect subject for her first submission. At a house representing that of the heroine from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Sophie learns that every day, hundreds of supplicants leave behind missives addressed to Juliet, and there is a small group of self-appointed women who collect the letters and respond to them. After being invited to share in their task, Sophie chooses something unique for her first project: a 50-year old note written in 1960 by a confused 15-year old named Claire who is torn between staying in Verona with the man she believes to be the love of her life or returning to London. Sophie responds and, to her surprise, only several days later, she finds herself face-to-face with a grateful Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) and her unpleasant, acerbic grandson, Charlie (Christopher Egan). Sophie joins the duo on a search for Claire's Lorenzo, employing her experience as a fact-checker to narrow down the possibilities. Along the way, with Victor off doing his own thing, Sophie finds herself increasingly drawn to Charlie, especially when he begins to lower his guard.

One common romantic staple is to place together two characters who can't stand each other then have them cross over the thin line between love and hate. The time-honored story is effectively executed here. There are two reasons to see the movie: to experience the development of the relationship between Sophie and Charlie and to marvel at the images of Verona and its environs as captured by the camera of cinematographer Marco Pontecorvo. The secondary story, that of Claire searching for her long-lost love, is more obligatory than heartfelt, although it provides Vanessa Redgrave with something to do. It's a way to keep things moving but at times it feels labored. There are about 20 "Lorenzos" to meet and it quickly becomes apparent that the first 18-or-so are going to be wrong turns. Letters to Juliet might have been special if the audience was to care as deeply about Claire and Lorenzo as it does about Sophie and Charlie.

The cast provides enough star power to justify a wide release without overwhelming the delicate story. Amanda Seyfried has become a hot commodity in last few years, having worked alongside the likes of Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, and now Vanessa Redgrave. This is the kind of film in which she is most successful. Her face is extraordinarily expressive and she can tear up believably (something surprisingly difficult for some actors). She is well matched by virtual unknown Christopher Egan. Redgrave provides an expected dose of dignity, although she recognizes that the role requires her to incorporate an element of giddiness into her 65-year old persona. Gael Garcia Bernal's Victor is underdeveloped and used primarily for comic relief, but that's often the fate of the "other man" in a romance.

Letters to Juliet is being released as counterprogramming to the early blockbuster films of the 2010 summer, with its primary competition being Iron Man 2 and Robin Hood. Indeed, this movie has no designs on potential viewers of those two films; it wants to provide an alternative for anyone more interested in a story about people and love than action and testosterone. For those to whom this appeals, it is a worthy effort.

Letters to Juliet (United States, 2010)

Director: Gary Winick
Cast: Amanda Seyfried, Christopher Egan, Vanessa Redgrave, Gael Garcia Bernal, Franco Nero
Screenplay: Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan
Cinematography: Marco Pontecorvo
Music: Andrea Guerra
U.S. Distributor: Summit Entertainment
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2010-05-14
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1