The Joe Cocker song “Up Where We Belong” — not to mention thousands of other love ballads, sonnets and poems — says the same essential thing as Letters to Juliet and says it better, in less than 100 mind-numbing big screen minutes. Love is splendid and grand and, in case you were wondering, nowhere does it “lift us up where we belong” quite as grandly as in fair Verona, where the movie — like Shakespeare — lays its scene.
Yes the latest picture from Gary Winick arrives with these and other earth-shattering insights, caked in a narrative so rife with buzzwords like “fate,” “destiny” and “true love” that it seems to have been cooked up in a PG romance lab. With its hottie, uptight male lead (Christopher Egan), everyday main character (Amanda Seyfried), constant pining, sun drenched cinematography and overwhelming volume of hyper emotional “awww” moments the picture will be catnip to the adolescent female demo.
Other audiences should see right through the charade and recognize just how cynical and calculating a ploy the film really is. Love is a commodity in the world of Letters to Juliet, to be processed and marketed as another studio might a G.I. Joe or a Transformer. Lazy and vapid, it brings to mind the image of an unduly meddlesome higher-up cracking a whip and growling “cuter, cuter!” at the beleaguered director.
Seyfried plays New Yorker fact checker Sophie, who abandons Gotham for Verona on a pre-wedding vacation with her charmingly narcissistic fiancé Victor (Gael García Bernal). There, she discovers an “entrancing” local tradition: lovesick women from across the world place letters to the Bard’s Juliet in the stone wall of her courtyard, imploring for some divine romantic intervention.
Sophie is thrilled to learn that a group of women calling themselves the Secretaries of Juliet answers every single one. Sure enough, she finds the letter they missed: a 50-year-old message stuck behind a stone. She convinces the Secretaries to let her reply to it, little foreseeing the major impact bringing its widowed author Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) and her grandson Charlie (Egan) to Italy will have on her seemingly settled existence.
The movie offers little beyond a bland travelogue depiction of the vineyards, rolling hills and picturesque villages of pastoral Italy, empty platitudes masquerading as dialogue and a narrative painstakingly deprived of all real-world significance in the name of lighthearted fantasy. Sophie, meant to be a strong modern woman, turns into a wide-eyed obsessive lunatic at the first hint of romance. She’s impossibly aroused by the very prospect of true love, conniving her way into the lives of the unsuspecting grandma and grandson with the frenzied commitment of an addict. The American copy-editor wants her love fix and she won’t be denied, damn the consequences.
So, to recap: Letters to Juliet offers picturesque characters, a beautiful setting and the reminder that love and destiny are in the air. Add some gentle ethnic ribbing (looka at all the silly Italians! Molto bene!), zero sexual tension and filmmaking so obvious Taylor Swift’s “Romeo and Juliet” plays over the climax. What’s left: a subpar Nicholas Sparks caliber ploy to attract the almighty tween dollar. Sadly, no one dies.
The Upside: Verona is, well, Verona. It’s pretty hard to make it look unappealing.
The Downside: A boring, straightforward romance about people driven into a frenzy by the very mention of “love,” let alone “fate” or “true love.”
On the Side: Filmmaker Gary Winick was a pretty prolific producer and director of independent films before directing 13 Going on 30 and starting to be tabbed the (self-proclaimed) “romantic comedy guy.”