Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” is featured in the trailer for Letters to Juliet. The song is symptomatic of all that’s missing and misunderstood in the film, which draws from Romeo and Juliet only the least painful plot elements. The movie features no feuding families, no clandestine rendezvous. In fact, there is almost no believable conflict to be found, only exquisite Italian landscapes as backdrop to a tidy foregone conclusion.
Sophie (Amanday Seyfried) is a fact checker (and wannabe writer) for the New Yorker. She is engaged to Victor (Gael García Bernal), a chef whose own aspirations and manic enthusiasm render him endearing, even if they do distract him from Sophie. On vacation in Verona, Victor is just as distracted as he is in New York, and soon leaves Sophie to sightsee on her own. At the famed Casa de Giulietta, where weepy girls write and leave letters seeking advice from Shakespeare’s Juliet, Sophie discovers the Secretaries of Juliet, a multigenerational assemblage of women who answer these letters in Juliet’s name, each according to her own “specialty.” Sophie soon joins in, answering a letter that had gone undiscovered in the courtyard wall for 50 years. In an amazing testament to international mail service and spontaneous travel planning, the recipient, Claire (Vanessa Redgrave), shows up in Verona only a week later to launch an exhaustive search for Lorenzo, the love she left behind half a century ago.
Claire’s search for her lover is sweet and amusing, especially as she encounters a string of eager potential Lorenzos ranging from the slightly addled to the overly tanned and Speedoed. The film is engaging and even sort of refreshing for those moments where it remains focused on Claire and the idea that desire, passion, and romance transcend age and are not solely reserved for the young. Redgrave is wonderfully subtle as Claire, who is as hopeful and nervous and daydreamy as any young girl might be, yet without being wholly idealistic or impractical. She knows there are risks in what she’s doing (Lorenzo might have forgotten her, be married, or even be dead) and she figures they are worth taking.
Unfortunately, Claire is saddled with her snobbish and disgruntled grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan). Being a self-proclaimed “realist,” Charlie directs his anger (born of his desire to protect his grandmother) towards Sophie as the instigator. But he also shows discomfort with romance generally. He recoils as Claire recalls an intimate picnic with Lorenzo all those years ago. Charlie’s response—“What’s so romantic about eating in the dirt?”—reveals his childish inability to see Claire as a sexual being, as well as his own lack of sensuality. He feels threatened, not only because he might be replaced as Claire’s protector, but also because, as he sees it, if she wasn’t in love with his grandfather, this would “invalidate his entire existence.”
Charlie is Sophie’s opposite, which in this sort of film is supposed to make him perfect for her. (She’s also a young version of Claire, which adds an Oedipal creepiness it’s best not to think too much about.) The problem with this (aside from the nonexistent chemistry between Seyfried and Egan) is that Victor isn’t believably “wrong” for Sophie in the first place. Sure, he needs a lesson in work/life balance and time management, but he’s passionate and artistic and even romantic, in his way, just like Sophie. So it’s hard to cheer on Charlie or hope for Victor’s ouster.
What little sappy goodness Letters to Juliet offers is spoiled when it turns away from Claire and Lorenzo and focuses exclusively on Sophie and Charlie. The movie somehow manages both to rush through their warm-up (they go from eye-rolling and insult-hurling to playfully dabbing each other’s noses with gelato in about two minutes) and drag out the resolution of their relationship. Worse, it does so in a manner so thoroughly predictable (never has a balcony been so overused) that it provokes audible groans from viewers. True, the film does poke fun at itself in some of these moments, but not enough to keep us from saying, “Grazie!” when it finally ends.