Thursday, May 13, 2010

Review: "Letters to Juliet"

When you see as many romantic comedies as I do, you practically shiver when you spy one on your calendar. After a thousand Meet Cutes and a thousand 90-minute dances in which the couple pretends to hate each other right up until the moment they realize they're in love, one craves something with a modicum of originality and heartfelt emotion.

Blow some kisses to "Letters to Juliet" for having both, if in modest quantities. The cast is attractive and engaging and we like spending time with them (with one notable exception), and all the gorgeous Tuscan landscapes are almost worth the price of admission by themselves.

Amanda Seyfried is some kind of workaholic, appearing in five movies in the last two years in addition to starring in the HBO series "Big Love." Here she plays Sophie, an ambitious wannabe writer who finds a long-lost love letter while traveling in Tuscany, and resolves to reunite the lovers and rekindle the romance. Of course, she finds some of her own along the way.

That might sound nice, except that she's already engaged to Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal), a chef who's about to open his own restaurant in New York, and seems to view the trip as an opportunity to meet with suppliers and scout out exclusive vineyards.

Bored, Sophie visits the Casa de Giulietta in Verona, supposed home of the family that inspired "Romeo and Juliet." There's a tradition of visitors (read: women) attaching letters about their romantic troubles on the wall, and Sophie stumbles across "Juliet's secretaries" -- women who collect the letters, and answer them.

Beneath a broken brick Sophie finds a worn letter written in 1957 by Claire, an English girl who ran away from Lorenzo, her Italian lover. She writes her back, and to Sophie's surprise Claire herself appears a few days later, with her grandson in tow. Claire resolves to find her soul mate, and Sophie, sensing a good story, tags along.

I'm don't think I'm giving away anything in saying that Claire eventually finds her Lorenzo. The trailer for "Juliet" happily gives away this information, and even if it didn't, the parameters of a film like this demand such a resolution. Vanessa Redgrave -- still a stunner at 73 -- invests the character with a shy sort of determination that's enchanting.

Less interesting is the romance on the main stage. Claire's grandson Charlie is a completely stock character -- the uptight British prig whose fussiness and constant annoyance at the female lead are supposed to mask the passionate heart beneath. Hugh Grant and Colin Firth milked this sort of role for years.

I don't blame actor Christopher Egan, who's just playing the cards screenwriters Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan dealt him. The trouble is, they spend so much time making Charlie an unlikable twit, that when Sophie starts to fall for him we don't understand what it is she's supposed to be seeing.

Director Gary Winick has a nice eye for capturing the rolling hills and dirt roads of the countryside, the pastoral outdoor feasts, and the colorful Italian folk who all seem to have an instinctive understanding of the emotional logic of Claire's quest for lost love, and never question it.

Except for Romeo being such a star-cussed jerk, "Letters to Juliet" is an agreeable romp. In romcom terms, it may not be a soul mate, but makes for a pleasant enough one-off blind date.

2.5 stars out of four

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