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Entries in When in Rome [2010] (1)

Friday
Aug132010

When in Rome (2010)

Belittle Italy

While discussing the forthcoming cinema apocalypse weekend with my friend, Graham—during which I insisted that I am totally ready to be won over by Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and The Expendables—I was asked, “Have you seen any movies that you’ve liked since you started your site?”

The question floored me.  I realized that, with the exception of The Men Who Stare at Goats—which was a movie I saw last year—I haven’t written any positive reviews since before Kicking the Seat broke the chains of blog-dom.

Graham, it is with great pleasure and supreme embarrassment that I present my (mostly) positive review of When in Rome.  I realize this opens me up to all sorts of ridicule; particularly the kind that begins with, “Oh my God!  You liked When in Rome but hated Inception?”

Yes.

Yes, I did.

I guess Mark Steven Johnson got sick of superhero movies.  After pushing Roe v. Wade to the very limits by directing Daredevil and Ghost Rider and producing Elektra in rapid succession, he took a few years off to find himself.  After much soul searching, Johnson must have realized that the real money is in romantic comedies.

Unless your romantic comedy bombs; in which case it may be time to explore other avenues, like pre-owned auto sales or line producing on Entourage.

Yes, When in Rome came and went, lost in a sea of Katherine Heigl and Jennifer Aniston comedies targeted at sappy women who ride the edge of their seats during even the most cookie-cutter will-they/won’t-they drivel.  The sad thing is, When in Rome is a pretty good movie.

It stars Kristen Bell as Beth, an aspiring New York curator who flies to Rome to stand up at her kid sister’s wedding.  There, she meets Nick (Josh Duhamel), a friend of the groom’s, who is goofy, charming, and handsome; the two hit it off until a typical Three’s Company-style misunderstanding leaves Beth swigging wine in a famous lover’s fountain.  Beth pockets a handful of coins, not realizing that the fountain has magical powers that compel the men who deposited the coins to fall in love with whoever removes them.

The rest of the film involves an assortment of oddballs duking it out for Beth’s affection, while she tries to come to grips with the fact that Nick’s sudden interest in her has everything to do with a poker chip he tossed in the fountain (or…did he?).  There are no prizes for predicting how the movie will end, but as Steven Tyler once said, life’s a journey, not a destination.

When in Rome is quite the journey, too.  It’s packed with every rom-com cliché you’d ever want to avoid.  But it tweaks these conventions just enough to make the movie light and warm instead of a dull endurance test.

Let’s start with the run-time.  I’ve written before about my disgust at modern comedies’ need to stretch out for two hours in some kind of attempt at legitimacy—and how that rarely works.  When in Rome is just under an hour-and-a-half (if you don’t include end credits), and the director and screenwriters David Diamond and David Weissman keep the story moving at a great pace.  The plot is in motion within ten minutes, and most of the wacky set-ups are given just enough screen time to succeed or flop, without belaboring the point.

Next, we have Bell and Duhamel.  They’re likable, A-minus (kind of) stars on their own; together, they have a grand doofus chemistry that’s not too cute and not out of the realm of possibility.  In particular, I like the way that the Beth character is a struggling businesswoman who is between relationships—instead of the stock ice princess mogul who just needs a man to show her how to have fun.

Nick, too, is not the typical power-tools-and-sports-bars asshole that just needs a good bath and a lesson in women’s feelings in order to become Prince Charming.  He’s an ex-football-player-turned-journalist who is somewhat well-traveled, and who doesn’t see women as mere receptacles of spunk.

Also of note—precisely because they have so little screen time—are Beth’s Fat Best Friend, Gay Best Friend, and Plain Best Friend.  Typically, romantic comedies only have one of these kinds of characters, but When in Rome puts all three on display at the outset, with the PBF taking center stage as Beth’s go-to/lean-on person (often the PBF will be a slightly less attractive actress than the main star, but in Kate Micucci’s Stacy we have the perfect storm of homeliness and half-wittedness).  If you watch the opening gallery scene of this movie with the right mindset, you may see these supporting players not as real people but as giggly, gossip-y Muppets—right down to the creepy felt skin.

When in Rome is genuinely warm and funny, up to a point.  The last half-hour of clown-car hijinks and two or three misunderstandings that keep our potential lovers apart begin to grind down on the airy cuteness of the first hour.  Beth’s would-be suitors are kooky and amusing on their own, but when Danny Devito, Will Arnett, Jon Heder and Dax Shepard come together, it’s as if their individual talents evaporate—leaving room only for funny-accent humor and talking-over-each-other comedy.

In a perfect world, the first hour of this film would have been a stellar pilot for a TV show, centered on Beth’s weekly misadventures in love.  As it stands, When in Rome is a promising movie ruined by people who didn’t trust the audience enough to leave out the stupid, over-the-top, sappy nonsense.  Then again, it was brought to you by the same genius who directed Ghost Rider.