Friday, January 29, 2010
"When in Rome" (opening January 29 throughout San Diego) is being pitched as a goofy, magical romantic comedy that will cast a spell on you. Don't believe it!
"When in Rome" has to work very hard to get its slight plot in motion. First, there's a big opening scene at the Guggenheim to introduce us to Beth (Kristen Bell) and her high pressure job, her lousy ex-boyfriend, her bad track record with romance, her demanding boss (Anjelica Huston), and her wacky co-workers. Now that we know those facts, add in a sister who is suddenly getting married the next day in Rome. And oh did I mention that the museum's biggest event of the year is in a couple weks and Beth's job is on the line if anything goes wrong?
Once Beth gets in Rome, the film has to establish that her parents (Peggy Lipton, Don Johnson) are divorced and her dad keeps racking up wives all in the name of love; that there's a cute best man (Josh Duhamel); and that there's a magic fountain of love. There are some contrived plot manipulations in order to get Beth into the fountain, aware of its wish-granting powers, and then willing to pull five coins out of the water to prevent the hopeless romantics who threw them from getting their wishes. Now the film can finally start moving forward since the plot exposition is finally over. Whew!
Beth arrives back home to discover that all the men whose coins she took are now madly in love with her and are pursuing her all over the city. The best man Nick also happens to be in town and interested as well. Okay that's a lot of manuevering to get a lightweight romantic comedy in motion. Then the heavy-handed direction of Mark Steven Johnson weighs the film down even more preventing a bouncy sense of fun to ever develop. It's also hard to buy into a romance in which the thing that "sparks" the connection is the fact that Nick reacts to the sister's quick courtship and marriage with the exact same line as Beth: "Two weeks isn't even enough time for a credit check."
Huh? That's the romantic connection? The thing that makes Beth realize, "Wow, this guy's for me." Give me a break. It's neither funny nor revealing of the two characters' personalities in a fun way. It's just bland.
"When in Rome" plods along with occasional relief from the supporting cast of Danny DeVito, Jon Heder, Will Arnett, and Dax Shepard. DeVito plays the "Sausage King" who hopes to get on Beth's good side by donating money to the museum. He reminded me of a character in Preston Sturges' "The Palm Beach Story," a wealthy entrepreneur who calls himself "The Wienie King" and is sweet on the lovely Claudette Colbert. But that memory only pointed out in bold relief how good Sturges was at smart romantic comedy and how lame "When in Rome" is. Bell has none of the effervescence that Colbert had and "Rome's" script has none of the sparkle or sexy fun of Sturges' film. (Although DeVito is enjoyable.)
But a romantic comedy begins in trouble when you have someone like Johnson at the helm. Johnson's track record is a pair of leaden action films ("Daredevil," "Ghost Rider"). Comedy requires nimbleness, and a director who's got a light touch and who's fast on his feet. Johnson directs as if he had ankle weights on. His lack of aptitude for this frothy genre is nowhere more apparent than in the end credits where he tries to pull off an American version of the Bollywood number that closed "Slumdog Millionaire." But the end credit song and dance in "When in Rome" is pathetically lacking in energy and fun. The scene like the rest of the film simply falls flat.
"When in Rome" (rated PG-13 for some suggestive content) was such a humorless and dour experience that it made "A Single Man" look like a romantic romp.(And in case you don't know, "A Single Man" is a film about a man trying to commit suicide.)
Companion viewing: "The Palm Beach Story," "Slumdog Millionaire," "Three Coins in a Fountain"