What’s Rome got to do with it?
When in Rome, romantic comedy, rated PG-13, Regal Stadium 14, 1 chile If the trailer for this film brings to mind 1954’s Three Coins in the Fountain, let me relieve you of any misconceptions. Like that film, When in Rome involves some coins and a fountain and has some scenes set in Italy. But while Three Coins isn’t exactly a great movie, it was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. When in Rome, though, is so sloppy, flimsy, dumb, and unfunny that I feel confident predicting that it won’t end up on any list of nominees — except maybe for the Razzies.
Kristen Bell assumes the moth-eaten role of an ambitious, spunky-but-sweet type-A workaholic young woman, here named Beth. Her professional drive intimidates men, so they steer clear of her altogether or else date her and then break her heart. Beth takes two days off from her job at the Guggenheim (her title is curator, but the job looks more like party planning) to attend her sister’s wedding in Rome. The groom’s best man is charming American sportswriter Nick (Josh Duhamel), with whom Beth quickly hits it off. Feeling optimistic, she follows him to the piazza outside the church, hoping to share a bottle of champagne beside the “fountain of love.” She spies him canoodling with a voluptuous woman in
a red dress, though, so she wades dejectedly into the fountain and gripes to the gods about her disillusionment. Hoping to save a few poor wretches from having their hearts broken, too, she snatches five coins from the water. This sets in motion a credulitystretching spell (the always-helpful thunder and lightning in the distance let you know something portentous has transpired): the men who tossed the coins into the fountain fall immediately in love with her.
Conveniently, four of the guys are Americans, which allows them to track Beth down when she returns to New York and obsessively follow her. The problem is, they’re all goofball losers who behave more like creepy stalkers than potential suitors: a vain wannabe male model (Dax Shepard, Bell’s reallife fiancé), an aspiring artist with a bad fake Italian accent (Will Arnett), a street magician (Jon Heder), and a self-proclaimed Sausage King who’s old enough to be Beth’s father (Danny DeVito— yes, you read that right). Meanwhile, Nick is back in New York, too, and wants to ask Beth out; she’s skeptical, though, thinking he must be bewitched like the other fellas.
As I’ve said many times before, romantic comedies are rarely surprising: we know the ending before we even buy our tickets. What makes this sort of movie succeed is likable characters, clever dialogue, and intriguing plot twists, all of which When in Rome lacks. Screenwriters David Diamond and DavidWeissman ( Old Dogs) fail to give anyone anything remotely funny to say or do. They shamelessly steal jokes from much better movies, such as FourWeddings and a Funeral. The misunderstandings they create to drive the plot forward feel ridiculously forced— Beth’s confusion about the woman in the red dress, for example, could have been cleared up with a brief conversation. People bumping into things or hitting their heads are mined for far more than they’re worth, and the lazy attempts at wit and clumsy pratfalls quickly wear thin. Even the comic talents of Arnett and Shepard can’t redeem the proceedings, and it’s sad seeing them slog through one ridiculous gag after another. Poor Heder is left to reprise his Napoleon Dynamite character— that film’s Pedro (Efren Ramirez) even shows up for a cameo. Duhamel is a breath of fresh air, though, exhibiting the cool, low-key charm of a handsome regular guy and never seeming to try too hard.
Don’t let the title mislead you: if you’re hoping to enjoy the movie’s scenery, you’ll be disappointed. Only about a third of the film takes place in Rome, and even less of it seems to have been shot there. Most of the locations in the Eternal City look like stage sets— the amateurish fontana d’amore in particular.
Diamond andWeissman do resist the illogical, overused trope in which the romantic leads hate each other before they realize they actually love each other. Beth and Nick seem to connect, and Bell and Duhamel have a nice, natural chemistry.
And to its credit, When in Rome is a refreshing contrast to others of its rom-com ilk in which the main characters are alarmingly, illogically obsessed with marriage— Leap Year, BrideWars, 27 Dresses, and Made of Honor come to mind. And unlike so many other lead characters in such films, Beth isn’t a bimbo or a bitch, and the writers don’t subject her to humiliating gaffes or antics. Her critical shortfall is her unwillingness to believe that she’ll find love, to believe that Nick’s affection is genuine. And while this skeptical self-doubt feels very real and human, it’s hard to believe that 20-something Beth could already be so jaded or that a sharp, smart gal with Bell’s looks would have any trouble securing a date.
The only way Beth can break the spell cast on her unwitting suitors is to toss their coins back into the fountain or return each coin to its owner. About halfway through this film, I began to feel like I’d tossed my seven bucks into the fountain of lousy movies and had gotten what I deserved. I considered asking for my money back. Maybe if the manager returned my hard-earned cash to me, I thought, it would set in motion some sort of magical theatrical spell, and I’d end up loving this movie after all.
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Kate Micucci, left, and Kristen Bell