Letters to Juliet is like a puppy. It’s sweet, cute, and relies on long looks from its big eyes to get away with being bad. And it’s so adorable that you don’t want to be mean to it, but sometimes you have to be stern so it knows that something is not okay.
So, director Gary Winick, you’ve brought us 13 Going on 30, Bride Wars, and now Letters to Juliet, proving that you can make films that are formulaic, predictable, and trite. But with each project, you’ve managed to take more of the pleasure out of these guilty pleasures. Not okay!
Writers Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan barely manage to create a back story to get their characters into place. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is a fact-checker for The New Yorker, but dreams of doing more than just tracking down sources. Her culinary-obsessed husband Victor (an enthusiastic Gael García Bernal) is more concerned with the impending opening of his restaurant than their nuptials, so the two take a pre-honeymoon trip to Italy to work around his dates. (Pre-honeymoon!?) Sophie doesn’t appreciate the behind-the-scenes tours of wineries and cheesemakers (making her an ungrateful wretch because what could be cooler?) so she and Victor start going their own ways each day. While out, she stumbles upon a 50-year old letter in Verona, written to star-crossed lover Juliet. Encouraged by the Secretaries of Juliet, a curiously paid group of women who respond to the lovelorn, Sophie writes back. And this is when things get ridiculous. By comparison.
The letter’s author, played by a wonderful Vanessa Redgrave, is still lamenting that she didn’t follow her heart as a young woman and Sophie’s response gives her the courage to set out on a quest for her lost love. Along for the ride is her obstinate grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan), who is so generic that it’s easier to call him Rolf from the Sound of Music because there is a vague resemblance. When the two travelers pair up with the lonely Sophie, the group starts a tour of Italy in search of the elusive Lorenzo.
The rest of the film devolves into a predictable pattern of days filled with finding the wrong Lorenzo and evenings filled with Sophie and Rolf growing closer to each other. Eventually even Gran starts to see that the two are meant for each other (she’d have to be suffering from some serious glaucoma to miss it), and plays matchmaker by sitting in the backseat of the car. Which is sad really, because all the lingering shots of the two lovebirds starring at each other through the rear-view mirror weren’t at all silly. The one thing this lovey-dovey crap explains is the pre-honeymoon concept; if she’s not married yet, Sophie’s isn’t nearly as much of a cheating hussy.
So, if the plot is stupid, will the acting make up for anything? Nope. Seyfried is lost somewhere between cute and insipid in the film. She may think she’s flashing her big doe-eyes at Rolf in the rear-view mirror, but she’s really just looking glassy-eyed and slightly vacant. Perhaps she’s wondering how she got herself into this mess of a project. Egan, on the other hand, comes off as a spoiled brat from the start and never redeems Rolf. At least in The Prince and Me, the prince matures and transforms as a character. Rolf just wears Sophie down (and wears horrible shoes).
Redgrave is by far the most entertaining part of the film. While eternally proper, she does get to make Claire something of an imp. Plus, she actually manages to make some of her lines seem smart and witty, and that’s no small feat.
The end is so solidly ridiculous – complete with Taylor Swift soundtrack – that even one of the characters has to say, “Really?” At least it signals the end is nigh. One thing I will give the film credit for – it’s like a long ad for Italy’s tourist bureau. The stunning landscapes and bucolic settings are breathtaking and it’s almost worth joining the hapless travelers on their journey just to see the views.
In a film so solidly rooted in chick-flick fluff that it can’t even be described as a rom-com, credit must be given to Winick for knowing his core audience and giving them what they want. For example, as the opening credits roll to a series of photos featuring kissing couples, most of the crowd audibly cooed when two toddlers flashed across the screen. It was almost loud enough to drown out the gagging from the rest of the crowd.