February 4, 2010

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When in Rome (PG-13)
Kristen Bell and Josh Duhamel get a 91-minute demonstration of why it’s sometimes better just to stay in television with When in Rome, another romantic comedy torture device inflicted on couples looking for an innocuous date movie.

Beth (Bell) is your standard rom-com career girl — she’s a curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Early in the movie, she tells her sister that she loves her job and isn’t willing to consider long-time couplehood until she loves a man as much as she loves her job. And, while her character’s actions earlier that day totally conflict with that statement, that actually seems like one of the more sensible things a romantic comedy heroine has said in a long time.

Naturally, the movie doesn’t want things to get too smart so it proceeds to dump stupid all over the character — first giving her a moronic assistant (Kate Micucci) who is clearly supposed to fill the sassy friend role but who I think I would just fire. And we get her younger sister Joan (Alexis Dziena), a mass of hair and chirpiness who is getting married in Rome to a man she met just a couple of weeks earlier. The wedding will conflict with work, so Beth is given an unnecessarily demon-like boss (Anjelica Huston). And, at the wedding, there are a series of campy pratfalls that all revolve around getting Beth infatuated with Nick (Duhamel), the best man, and then infuriated at him (and at love in general) when she thinks all her flirting is for naught.

Darn love to heck, she says while standing in one of those marble statue fountain dealies that apparently litter the Roman landscape. While La Dolce Vita-ing in the fountain (of course), she picks up a few of the coins, drunkenly babbling that she’s saving them from love. They turn out to be coins belonging to a “thatsa spicy-a meatball”-accent-having artist (Will Arnett), a self-infatuated model (Dax Shepard), a David Blaine-ish street magician (Jon Heder) and a sausage-selling Danny DeVito. Even once she returns to New York, Beth finds these men throwing themselves at her because they believe they are desperately in love with her. Are they, or is their love the result of a curse that says if you take a coin from the fountain you have stolen that person’s love? And what about Nick, who also appears to like her? Does he really or is he just acting that way because she has grabbed his coin and he is cursed as well?

Not counting The Princess and the Frog and New Moon (which is funny but not, strictly speaking, a romantic comedy), it’s been a while since a romantic comedy has had either literal or possible magic or curses involved. Zombie-, heist- and lessons-about-consumption-related romantic comedies seem to be more in vogue right now. But magic has been a convenient romantic comedy gimmick throughout the years: Only You with Marisa Tomei, Practical Magic with Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, Kidman’s Bewitched. As film critics have observed over the years, it’s getting harder to think of reasons why two people in love can’t just be together from the get-go in this modern world. Class, race, gender, geography, warring parents, warring companies — almost all of these things are surmountable nowadays. And quickly surmountable, making them unsatisfying as a reason two people have to spend 86 minutes apart before they can finally come together in the last four minutes. So, I suppose, why not magic? It’s no more annoying on its face than “he isn’t open to love, she’s too particular,” the current favorite roadblock to movie romance.

But the movie doesn’t do anything particularly exciting with the magic. As far as I can tell, this movie isn’t a remake or adaptation of anything, and yet it feels so similar to stuff I’ve seen before that I kept catching myself thinking “geez, didn’t the original do this better?” even though this appears to be the original. And no, movie, the little jitterbug dance number over the credits does not count as innovation.

I like Bell and I like Duhamel. And I feel like there were moments of humor and genuine warmth that hinted at their ability to do more. And even the relentlessly one-note characters that are Beth’s cursed suitors have the potential to be goofy-funny (Heder is subtle like a hammer to the face but his Blaine-as-tool riff is wickedly silly) — even campy, this quartet is fun to watch. But I felt like the movie was using everybody wrong — going for the cheap joke at the expense of actual humor and needlessly throwing up roadblocks that severely dumb down the plot — particularly in the final segment, which seemed as though it had been glued on after somebody decided that the original ending came too soon (and even at 91 minutes, nothing in this movie feels “too soon”).

When in Rome didn’t have to be a brainless, mostly unfunny and completely predictable comedy, but perhaps it was the most effortless way to go. Perhaps next time, a little effort wouldn’t kill anybody. D+

Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content. Directed by Mark Steven Johnson and written by David Diamond and David Weissman, When in Rome is an hour and 31 minutes long and distributed in wide release by Touchstone Pictures.