In Theaters: When in Rome
Not as bad you'd think and yet nowhere near what could be called any good, When in Rome is a romantic comedy without much to offer in the way of character, conflict, or canoodling. Got lots of concept, though, if you're into that -- so much so in fact that it trammels the chemistry its two stars share. Without the plot's shabby scaffolding tossed up around them, Kristen Bell and Josh Duhamel might have had a shot at bringing some actual interest in their inevitable pairing. Instead their better moments seem stolen from a movie that's beneath their charms; short of meeting lame in the Irish countryside and bickering their way to Dublin (hello again, Leap Year), I'd rather watch these two do just about anything, including escape from the clutches of a sleepwalking script and an auto-pilot director, to beat those nasty odds and claim their love.
Bell plays Beth, a museum curator in New York City whose big art opening is deflated by the arrival of an ex who informs her that he's sorry for dumping her for working too hard, especially since he's now engaged to a workaholic and loving it! Thus the only facet (if it can be called that; it's more of a passing fling at a facet) of Beth's character that the film will give us to work with is spelled out: she works too much and she sucks at love. When her lovably klutzy ways are revealed at the same event, the romantic heroine trifecta is complete and it's time to head off to a foreign country and complain about cell coverage while Mr. Right hovers nearby.
At her sister's last-minute wedding in Rome Beth meets Nick (Duhamel), a college friend of the groom who fronts about his Italian language skills and is willing, Cary Grant-style, to save a hapless damsel from humiliation. The two strike a surprisingly natural match, the kind that only a director's (in this case Mark Steven Johnson) penchant for dopey physical comedy (an old Italian grandmother is beaned with a ceramic vase), crusty sight gags (a "he's right behind me" moment is followed by the words "He's right behind me, isn't he?") and hackneyed laugh cues (a real-time needle-drop? Really?) can sabotage. After vowing to fight her resistance to risk Beth espies Nick in the arms of another woman and takes refuge in... a public fountain. She scoops up a number of coins, "rescuing" the coin-tossers from their naïve wishes, and hearts sink as the film falls into the grip of a grim contrivance: Due to an ancient Italian curse, all of the men whose coins Beth has collected fall madly and often quite stupidly in love with her.
It's not that the actors playing these besotted men -- Will Arnett as a Begnini-esque artist, Dax Shepherd as a New York narcissist, Jon Heder as a Criss Angel-like illusionist and Danny DeVito as a sausage scion -- aren't game and often very funny doing their little bits of business. OK, DeVito is not funny; the joke is in the job and that's all you need to know. But screenwriters Davids Diamond and Weissman (*cough* Old Dogs cough) don't figure out a way -- until far too late -- to use them as anything but distraction.
Back in New York all of the men (including Nick, who is baffled by Beth's cold rebuffs) manage to find and relentlessly harass the object of their desire, and the fun in that is mostly in watching Bell's polished but not brittle exterior suffer a series of hairline fractures. Her sharp frame, small, alert eyes and wide, picket fence grin seem to do more than they're designed to; it's a pleasure to watch her breathe life into moments the writers didn't earn. Exhausted by the parade of what is clearly, in her eyes, a fraudulent brand of ardor, Bell's Beth gives a touching glimpse of the depressive and even deadening effects that pure infatuation can have on its subjects.
The "problem" the film cooks up is that Beth is certain that Nick too is simply under the influence of the fountain's spell -- that his feelings for her are not real. There are some well-intentioned, Oprah-approved a-ha moments involving the true meaning and rewards of love, unrequited and otherwise, but they slip and slide around inside of a film where no one idea, character, or coherent throughline manages to get any traction. A half-assed gimmick plays out around a cute couple falling in love; the works is book-ended by weddings in Italy. As I said, it could be worse, but ultimately When in Rome is yet another in a seemingly decade-long streak of romantic comedies that serve mainly to remind us that it could be so, so much better.