A Fizzy, Fuzzy Treat
By Roxana Hadadi
Romantic comedies aren’t really that surprising nowadays. If you’ve seen the trailer for “Letter to Juliet,” you can guess that it focuses on a surprising love that sprouts between two foes who soon realize they can’t live without each other. And if you end up seeing the movie itself, you’ll walk away remembering elements of films like “Never Been Kissed,” “The Wedding Singer,” “10 Things I Hate About You” and “Wedding Crashers” – the ignorant boyfriend, misunderstood journalist, quarreling lovers to-be. It’s almost like every cliché of the genre has found its way into “Letters to Juliet.”
Somehow, though, the film is surprisingly not awful – partly because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Though character development is somewhat lacking, the film’s various nods to other romantic classics, an over-the-top performance from Gael García Bernal (who obviously takes great delight in his role as the obnoxious boyfriend) and the dry humor of Vanessa Redgrave keep the film light and watchable. Yes, it drags toward the end – during the requisite portion of the film where the main characters are apart and soon realize they need to be together – but until then, it’s a likeable, frothy flick that could understandably endure years of reruns on Lifetime, Women’s Entertainment, Oxygen or SoapNet. You know, any cable channel geared toward women.
After all, “Letters to Juliet” includes a Taylor Swift song during a pivotal plot moment; how could it not end up loved by tweens and suckers-for-romance everywhere?
The film starts by introducing us to Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), a fact-checker with The New Yorker who is going on a pre-honeymoon vacation to Italy with her fiancée Victor (Bernal). Though she doesn’t wear an engagement ring, the two are planning to wed after Victor opens his first restaurant in New York City; before things get too hectic, they plan to spend some time together in Verona. But while Victor keeps ignoring time with Sophie to capitalize on more opportunities to gather more materials for his restaurant – wine auctions and tours of vineyards seem to take up day after day of their trip – she instead chooses to wander around Verona alone.
While walking along, one particular phenomenon catches her eye: Crowds of women writing letters to Shakespeare’s Juliet Capulet and leaving the notes posted on an outside wall of what is widely thought of as the fictional lover’s home, right underneath her famed balcony. The women – who vary in age and nationality but are united in their romantic plight – sob and muse over these letters, which Sophie then notices are gathered and taken away by another woman. After following her, Sophie realizes Isabella (Luisa Ranieri) works for the city and that she and a few other women pen replies back to the letters. As Secretaries of Juliet, they try to offer comfort to women worried about their relationships with their boyfriends, husbands or children.
So since Victor is too busy sampling cheeses and olive oil to hang out with her, Sophie decides to spend more time with Isabella, her mother and her three fellow Secretaries, especially after she finds a 50-year-old letter tucked into Juliet’s wall. The letter was written decades ago by a young British woman named Claire, who fell in love with a man named Lorenzo while studying art for a semester in Italy; cold feet and her parents’ disapproval, however, caused the college student to call off their engagement. Affected deeply by the tale, Sophie decides to write back and offer her supportive words about true love – and is shocked when Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) and her perpetually grumpy grandson Charlie (Chris Egan) show up at the Secretaries of Juliet’s office a few days later.
Charlie’s not too happy about the trip, thinking it belittles the relationship his grandmother had with his recently passed grandfather – he also mocks Claire’s use of the word “awesome” and acts all snobbish, as the film version of the British often do – but Claire insists that finding Lorenzo and apologizing to him will bring her a sense of closure. So together, Sophie (who hopes to make the adventure her writing debut in The New Yorker), Charlie and Claire start driving all over Italy, attempting to find the man Claire once loved. Victor, who is hundreds of miles away bidding on wines in Livorno, calls their time apart a “win-win” – but little does he know that Charlie will soon begin to replace his place in Sophie’s heart. It’s a romantic comedy; these things happen.
Though the end of the film is somewhat expected, there are little touches of character development here and there (not a lot, but still) which give Sophie, Charlie and Claire more depth and realism. For example, though Claire acknowledges she loved the man she eventually married, she can’t deny the feelings she still has for Lorenzo; that kind of truthful approach to romance (who really falls for just one person in their life, anyway?) is more believable than the all-or-nothing tactic of flicks like “The Princess Bride” – not hating, just saying. And much like in “Wedding Crashers,” it’s obvious from the get-go that Victor and Sophie aren’t meant for each other: He only mentions sex as a way of spending time together, and his lackadaisical approach to her needs and interests makes her attraction to Charlie that much more understandable.
And Redgrave is the icing on the treacle-heavy cake: Her deadpan, sarcastic delivery (especially when she’s lecturing Charlie on his “cold as fish” personality) and motherly vibes elevate both the film’s script and her own thinly drawn character. Thanks to the latter, even a scene as simple as her brushing Sophie’s hair takes on layers of meaning. Plus, her reactions to each wrong Lorenzo are always worth a laugh, especially her bemused expression whenever the perpetually lusty Italians kiss her on the cheek or offer to cook her a fish dinner.
In fact, a lot of the sexual content here is strictly implied (aside from what’s already been mentioned, there are also a few kisses and some cleavage from Seyfried), and only a few instances of cursing. All in all, “Letters to Juliet” is pretty inoffensive – and for the female crowd, that likeability and the subtle nods to other films (like “Titanic” and “Romeo and Juliet,” obviously) are worth it, just like a guilty pleasure. Think of it as a gooey Caramello bar for your love-starved soul.
Roxana Hadadi also reviewed “Robin Hood.”
Looking for a more kid-friendly flick? Try “Shrek Forever After,” also out this week.