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You Can't Blame Romeo for Abandoning this 'Juliet'

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Friday, May 14, 2010
The light breaking through yonder window is the glare of critical scrutiny - and Letters to Juliet looks pathetic in it.
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Letters to Juliet

Director: Gary Winick
Cast: Amanda Seyfried, Chris Egan, Vanessa Redgrave, Gael García Bernal, Franco Nero

(Summit Entertainment; US theatrical: 14 May 2010; UK theatrical: 14 May 2010; 2010)

Rumor has it that, every day, hundreds of tourists flock to the Italian city of Verona to see the setting of Shakespeare’s tragic love story Romeo and Juliet. The story also goes that amongst the throng, dozens of wayward women (and a few men) brings letters and notes to the fictional female, leaving them near the famous balcony. They hope that she will answer their pleas and lead their lovelife in the right direction. Apparently, an organization known as ‘The Juliet Club’ acts as “secretaries” for the mythic Miss, guiding all from the sick of spirit to the desperate and dateless with homey, homespun handwritten responses. While it’s a little cloying, it’s also incessantly cute and quite romantic. So how did a movie based on this idea trash all that potential goodwill and true life invention for the sake of a saggy Romantic Comedy. Difficult as it may seem, Letters to Juliet found a way.


As a fact checker for The New Yorker, Sophie dreams of one day penning pieces for the magazine. A discovery while on a pre-wedding vacation with her husband to be - cook and restaurant owner Victor - seems like the perfect fodder for a story. In Verona, she stumbles across the Secretaries of Juliet, women who answer the voluminous mail Shakespeare’s infamous damsel gets every day. Finding a letter from nearly 50 years before, Sophie decides to take this particular case under her own literary wing. Before she knows it, the note’s author, former teenager/now aging grandmother Claire comes to the city to seek out her lost love. Tagging along is angry grandson Charlie who believes the whole adventure to be a useless farce. With Sophie - and her laptop - invited along, the trio head out to find the missing man. In the meantime, as our heroine grows distant from her intended, something about Charlie starts to stir her heart.
  
The biggest problem with Letters to Juliet is that it consists of two stories - one you don’t care about and one that takes nearly 90 minutes to get going. On the “ignore” side of things is writer-wannabe Amanda Seyfriend and her plucky if rather impersonal restaurateur fiancé Gael Garcia Bernal. They look good together, but that’s about it. Frankly, they are both so nonplused about their relationship and impending nuptials that you wonder how they managed to get on the plane to Italy, let alone plan a steamy pre-honeymoon get together. He’s more interested in stocking his bistro’s pantry with the Mediterranean’s finest. She’s trapped in tourist mode - a station that sets her up for the two week binge of playing buttinski the script demands. Indeed, for most of Letters to Juliet, elements like personal responsibility and duty to others is cast aside so that a plethora of story machinations can tweeze the tears out of us.


When stiff upper twit Christopher Egan shows up, things go from bad to Mr. Bean. About as socially adept as the famed Rowan Atkinson feeb, this doughy lump of bumbling Brit is supposed to become Sophie’s new dream catch. But with the personality like a pile of used fish and chips paper and a worldview that varies from snob to sudden man of the people, he’s more confusing that captivating - and yet our heroine tosses aside her workaholic mate-to-be for this UK idjit. Nothing in Egan’s performance convinces us that Charlie is a catch, and Seyfried’s Sophie is so inconsistent in her motives that you swear she’s suffering from a degenerative form of jet lag. A late night talk under the stars gets our eyes rolling, not our heart pumping. 


Where some real emotion lies is in the story of Claire - played by a radiant Vanessa Redgrave - and her desire to reconnect with the macho farm hand that got away. Of course, we have to suffer through endless cases of mistake identity (Lorenzo Bartolini is the Roman equivalent of Dick Smith, apparently), most of which are handled with the precision and skill of a sailor on shore leave. Director Gary Winick can’t tell if he wants to make a travelogue, a whirlwind romance, or an anti-Italian screed. Sure, there are probably hundreds of people in and around Verona who resemble easy ethnic stereotypes, but did the filmmakers have to find each and every one? Luckily, they save the best for last as the hyper-suave (and still magnetic) Franco Nero shows up to play plotpoint. The real life story behind he and Redgrave’s decades-long love affair would make a much better movie than this tepid tripe.


One of the most aggravating things about the film is its desire to avoid the myriad of inconsistencies it creates. Sophie writes the letter to Claire and mails it. This take a couple of days. BINGO - Redgrave is in Italy almost immediately. Apparently, Europe has better postal service than the US. Next, Sophie makes it very clear she wants to exploit Claire’s story for her own gain. Charlie gets to make one spineless argument against such an approach, and then it’s all but given. Victor knows he has a fiancé sitting back in a Verona hotel room just waiting for his return - and yet, a wine auction is so tantalizing and so important to his career that he can’t leave for days on end…and this is an event that wasn’t even on his agenda to begin with? It’s as if Letters to Juliet needed some excuses to keep their couple apart, and just made something up on the fly before then ignoring the explanation and moving on.


Because the characters are basically stupid, acting without common sense, courtesy, or purpose, because two aging international icons can act circles around a bunch of young mostly unknown upstarts, because Winick can’t wait to pour on the waterworks and the syrupy string section, Letters to Juliet loses on all counts. It’s not a comedy. It’s barely romantic, and even the scenery looks filtered through a couple dozen attempts at post-production color timing (no nation is this…golden). Had someone made a simple documentary about The Juliet Club, focusing on the actual ladies who spend their days playing Dear Abby to lovers of the Bard, we’d have something to celebrate. Instead, the light breaking through yonder window is the glare of critical scrutiny - and Letters to Juliet looks pathetic in it.   


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