Peggy Lipton must have better things to do. She looks so sad when she shows up for her three minutes in When in Rome. As mother of the bride, Joan (Alexis Dziena), Lipton first appears waiting in Rome impatiently when her other daughter Beth (Kristen Bell) arrives, late. With long face and a smattering of complaints, she expresses some vague and predictable concerns: Joan may be slipping into a life she’ll regret, a possibility underscored when mom’s own ex (Don Johnson) smarms onto the scene with his latest girlfriend, and Beth has no romantic prospects whatsoever. Alas and alack.
Even if her character has movie-typically silly reasons to be depressed, Lipton’s cheerless face also resonates throughout and beyond When in Rome. At every turn, the movie is strained and desperate-seeming, an assembly of romantic comedy clichés stretched to their thinnest and delivered mirthlessly. Mom is, of course, ancillary to the picture’s primary business, which is to get Beth married off to Fergie’s husband, here called Nick (Josh Duhamel). He’s a sportswriter and a friend of the Roman groom, and makes it his immediate business to observe and rescue the endearingly clumsy Beth. Recently and incessantly wounded in love, she’s reluctant to return his ogling — for about 20 seconds.
As Nick and Beth dance and drink champagne, their inevitability plainly needs some obstacles, as the movie has to fill up another 87 or so minutes. And so the Fountain of Love is interjected, a magical business wherein Beth — drunk and elaborately unhappy — steals five coins and so drags back to New York with her the spell-induced affections of the five Caucasian males who tossed those coins into the fountain in the first place. (Apparently no women or people of color engage in such ritual tossing.) Beth, a workaholic who will need to learn the value of love and trust and romantic risk — only discovers the cause of her sudden onslaught of suitors late in the film, via a series of phone calls with her blissfully married sister, repeating her old-world-Italian mother-in-law’s wisdom and warnings. Until then, she’s only bemused and alarmed by the many men who come calling.
Her apprehension is surely warranted, as each meeting with a would-be beau is less cute than creepy. The first three are young and goony, overbearing counterbalances to Nick’s affable charms. The easel-toting “street artist” Antonio (Will Arnett) proclaims his love on their first encounter, threatening to paint her likeness on Manhattan’s most prominent walls; the magician Lance (Jon Heder) waves his magic fingers and steals her watch, again and again (an unfortunate reminder of the time you’re wasting), and the unemployed model Gale (Dax Shepard) insists on exposing himself in public, showing off his chest and latest photos (nude save for a puppy on his crotch).
As hard as these dodos work to distract Beth from her job, she does hang on to her self-image rather hard. A curator at the Guggenheim Museum (around the office, they call it the Goog), she has a fierce boss, Celeste (Anjelica Huston, as yet another iteration of her Wicked Witch), who pressures her constantly to deliver on the centerpiece for an upcoming and amazingly, incredibly, dreadfully important show, called “Pain.” Yes, everyone feels it.
The movie doesn’t exactly care about Beth’s career ambitions — why she’s good at what she does or why she likes doing it. Suffice it to say, as she does more than once, that she’s looking for a man she can love more tan her job. Until then, she’s married to it, and not only occasionally miserable about that life choice. Of course, Joan’s wedding has made the miserable aspect more visible to her, as do her insistent admirers: gee, she wonders, why is it that women can only be happy when they’re coupled? And, accepting that inevitable case, why can’t she attract someone she actually likes, and not only Gale (who’s named himself for the force-of-nature wind he feels he resembles) or the Sausage King Al (Danny DeVito, who brings welcome irony to the proceedings, even when called on to pronounce, “There’s not an emotion on earth that can’t be expressed through sausage”)?
Nick is supposed to be that alternative, as she does like him. (Why is not so clear.) His insertion into the courtship roundelay presents a dilemma, as Beth believes his affection is no more “real” than the other magic-inspired obsessions. Contending with her gaggle of stalkers, Beth mostly makes faces and embodies a kind of saintly patience. The overkilled magic metaphor reveals her own apprehensions — not unlike her mother’s, after all — that whether she marries or not, she has no control of her options, which are always one-or-the-other, no in-betweens allowed. That is, she must accept the mythology she resists so valiantly, delivered by the man who will make her happy instead of sad. If only she had better things to do.