The romantic comedy is a staple of the multi-plex. Studios consistently trot out formulaic offerings pairing two attractive people in a story little better than your average television show. A number of recent examples have used old-fashioned romantic comedies as their 'inspiration'. "When in Rome" seems to be modeled after the old Doris Day and Rock Hudson films. Nothing in the film could ever happen in reality and the actors seem to keep winking at the camera. Unfortunately, they seem to be the only ones in on the joke. In "The Bounty Hunter", Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler spend the entire film fighting with one another, often inflicting physical pain on one another. In the end, they get together (I'm sure that was a big surprise) but you won't care because the rest of the film is so unpleasant. In "The Back-Up Plan", animated, very retro style opening credits clue us in to indicate the inspiration for the film would be any lighthearted romance from the 60s. Unfortunately, the film contains many lengthy sequences, which seem to be funny only to the cast and crew involved. And the filmmakers seem insistent on making Jennifer Lopez appear Caucasian. A very strange film.
So it is a surprise to find "Letters from Juliet", a sweet, romantic, fun to watch and slightly formulaic film starring Amanda Seyfried (HBO's "Big Love", "Mamma Mia"), Vanessa Redgrave, Christopher Egan (lots of TV work) and Gael Garcia Bernal.
Sophie (Seyfried), a fact checker for the New Yorker magazine, dreams of becoming a writer. She and her fiancé, Victor (Bernal), a restaurateur, travel to Verona for a pre-marriage Honeymoon, Victor's restaurant opens in a few weeks, so they want to get away before the wedding. In Verona, Victor quickly starts to get engrossed in local wineries, cheese makers, and butchers, anything that might help his new restaurant. Sophie was hoping the trip would be something more romantic. One day, she wanders to Juliet's wall late in the afternoon. As she sits composing a letter, she watches a woman gather all of the letters and follows her back to a small room above a restaurant. There, she meets a group of women who are known as "Juliette's secretaries". They answer every letter, trying to provide some hope to the lovelorn ladies who feel it necessary to write Juliet discussing their love problems. Sophie becomes intrigued and starts to ask questions. The next day, she finds a letter hidden in the wall for fifty years. She decides to write back to Claire, a British woman seeking advice about her affair with an Italian lover. A few days later, Charlie (Egan), Claire's grandson shows up and wants to know who wrote the letter. Charlie is not a romantic and doesn't appreciate the intrusion. Sophie learns he has accompanied his grandmother, Claire (Redgrave) and wants to meet her. Before you can say "Shakespeare", Sophie is accompanying them as they crisscross Tuscany trying to find Claire's long lost lover.
Seyfried is good as Sophie. She is cute but somehow doesn't seem overly beautiful which helps her seem a little more realistic and interesting. She also makes Sophie more intelligent than most of the characters in these films. Perhaps because she already has a fiancée, she isn't looking for love and when she finds it, it seems more natural. As she realizes Victor is more interested in visiting cheese merchants and wine auctions, she shows her disappointment in a subtle way. She wants to express her feelings, but she can see how excited Victor is about these things, so she lets him have his fun. She gives us the feeling this is what she believes a new bride should do, make a certain number of sacrifices. And then she finds out about Juliet's Secretaries and meets Claire and her grandson and finds both a subject for a story she can write for the New Yorker and an adventure to fill her time in Italy.
During the road trip, she and Charlie spend a lot of time together and get to know one another better. At times, this is both a blessing and curse for both as Charlie finds himself attracted to Sophie and Sophie occasionally learns more about Charlie, making her even less interested in him. But of course, they also begin to see each other as they truly are, as they let their defenses down and begin to talk. This seems to draw them together.
Christopher Egan is good as Charlie. He is probably the most stereotypical of the three characters and he has the least wiggle room to bring anything new and exciting to the character. But he controls the character, showing his traits in subtle and believable ways. We quickly learn Charlie is not a romantic and finds the entire trip frustrating beyond belief. This makes Sophie dislike him, because she is completely the opposite and can't understand Charlie's skepticism. But as they spend time together, Sophie learns a little about Charlie, allowing us a glimpse into the young man's life, which in turn makes him more empathetic.
The real selling point for this film is Vanessa Redgrave. Her presence simply makes the film more believable and interesting. From the moment she first appears on screen as Claire, you get her. She looks at Sophie with hopeful, yet tired eyes. She is, after all, looking for her long lost love from fifty years ago. As she makes this journey, we get the sense she is waking up, finding renewed meaning to her life. But because she has gone through so much of her life, she is a bit weary and a bit tired. Even though she is hopeful, she is prepared for the worse. Somehow, this makes our emotions more in tune with hers. We feel her emotions more. She also knows her grandson too well and is able to make a quick comment putting him in his place as necessary.
There are a few scenes with Redgrave, which simply make the rest of the film work. In one, she talks with Sophie about her husband, Charlie's grandfather. At the beginning of the journey, Charlie seems more annoyed because his grandmother is looking for "the love of her life" and can't understand why that person isn't his grandfather. "Let's not totally negate my existence", he asks. Claire and Sophie share a conversation giving us the back-story of this moment. In another, Claire seems to be losing hope but Sophie urges her on, making her believe they will indeed find her long lost love. Redgrave makes this moment work through her reactions to Sophie.
Gael Garcia Bernal plays Victor, an aspiring restaurateur. He is actually cartoonish and dense throughout. Victor is very excited about his restaurant and quickly becomes overwhelmed by the possibilities when they arrive in Verona. His connection sets up meetings with winemakers, cheese makers, butchers and more. And Victor jumps in feet first. But Sophie isn't interested and starts to sightsee on her own. Victor is a stupid man, bringing his fiancée to a country on the pretext of a romantic trip and essentially abandoning her for visits to possible food vendors, touring their caves and fields. The fact he seems so oblivious makes him a bit of an idiot and not very believable.
Some moments work really hard to stretch the credibility of everything else. When Sophie writes the answer to Claire, they mail it on the third (?) night of her stay. In the next scene, Charlie shows up with his grandmother and Sophie is still in Verona. Huh? There is no way a letter would make it from Verona to the English Countryside in less than a week. Then, Claire and Charlie have to make the travel arrangements and actually travel to Italy. Sophie is either on the longest vacation in history or we are supposed to believe the letter arrives in one day. A small quibble, because this is a romantic drama and comedy and we have to suspend a certain amount of belief and go with it. The filmmakers need Sophie and Charlie to meet, so we have to take this jump and move on.
"Letters to Juliet" provides a nice homage to the romantic films of the 50s and 60s and gets most of the moments right. Because it gets it right, we enjoy the ride and believe in the budding romance.
"Letters to Juliet" is a welcome surprise.