May 13, 2010


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Letters to Juliet (PG)
Amanda Seyfried tries to see if you can replace “acting” with just looking at the camera with your big eyes in Letters to Juliet, a grating and nerve-shredding romantic comedy.

Let me start by saying that Sophie (Seyfried), this movie’s heroine, is problematic for me in that I hate her. I hate her very essence, hate her straight into her mealy-mouthed little soul.

She is a fact-checker at the New Yorker who longs to be “a writer,” a desire that she proclaims with the same moony look on her face and same total lack of confidence and understanding that four-year-olds use when they say their secret wish is to be a fairy princess (actually, most four-year-olds probably have more confidence). I hate that when she and her chef fiancé Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal) go to Verona, Italy, she gets all pouty because instead of sight-seeing he wants to spend the day eating free food from his vendors. She frowns at wine poured from the barrel, heavy-sighs at olive oil served to her in an olive grove. When she ultimately turns down a slice of cheese freshly cut from some perfect round in some perfect cheese-cave-basement, I wanted to punch her in the face. My god, woman, this is cheese we’re talking about.

But oh no, Miss Sophie is too good for cheese and wine and homemade Italian food that is offered to her at every turn. She’s all caught up in Snow-White-ish “Someday My Prince Will Come”-level ideas about love and so she takes her sad sad self to a touristy house dedicated to Juliet Capulet where girls are leaving tear-stained letters about their romantic woes to Juliet. (Because a fictional 13-year-old whose plan to run away with her boyfriend leads to them killing themselves is the person to fix your love life. Why not just write to Bella from the Twilight books? At least she eventually graduates high school.)

She sees a woman removing the letters, follows her and finds a group of women calling themselves Juliet’s secretaries who answer the letters left at the house. The next day, Sophie joins in and finds an old letter wedged between some bricks. It’s from a woman who as a teenager met a boy she loved but didn’t run away with him. Even though the letter is some 50 years old, Sophie decides to answer it.

A preposterously few days later, Charlie (Christopher Egan) shows up to chew Sophie out for writing the letter. The “girl” is his grandmother Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) and she has decided to return to Italy to search for Lorenzo, the man she left waiting for her all those years ago. He disapproves because the movie requires Charlie and Sophie to fight about something for the first two-thirds. Sophie senses a potential career-kickstarting story in Claire’s quest and decides to follow her on her adventure. Because after all Victor is off somewhere learning to make risotto and buying fantastic wines. (That Victor pays no attention to her is the movie’s first irritating “no duh.” He’s starting a restaurant and, as Top Chef has taught us, there are few things more all-consuming and stressful. The best she could hope for is to hang on to the relationship just long enough to get a couple of free dinners out of it and then end it with good feelings all around so she can get a deal on catering when she does meet Mr. Right.)

You know, I don’t totally hate the idea of a woman in her 60s returning to her teenage romance. And I don’t totally hate the idea of a parallel story of young people finding love along the way. But I totally hate the way this movie develops this story. Everything happens exactly the way you expect it to but for no reason other than that’s the way things go in romantic comedies. Everything is the cute coincidence and the meaningful throwaway statement and starry nights at just the right time. Nobody behaves like a regular person; they behave like one-dimensional characters in a romantic comedy. The acting is wooden, the dialogue feels shrill, the story is needlessly slow and remarkably empty.

Every cheap cliché, every lazy story-telling device — it’s all here and it all wears on your nerves, or at least it did mine. I recognize that some people like romantic comedies more than I do — and I feel that those people deserve better, not to mention the dates and best friends and daughters who will be dragged with the rom-com-lovers to see this soggy wad of cold spaghetti. D

Rated PG for brief rude behavior, some language and incidental smoking. Directed by Gary Winick and written by Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan, Letters to Juliet is an hour and 45 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Summit Entertainment. It opens on Friday, May 14.