Letters to Juliet (review)

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Is the world so full of women ready to settle, romantically, for Mr. Just Barely Okay that even our romantic fantasies are full of such situations? For this is a staple of the Hollywood romance, of both the comedic and the dramatic stripes: the woman who is about to commit to a man whom she discovers is wrong for her because, just in the nick of time, she meets The Guy, The One, Mr. Right, Mr. Perfect. Oh, the mistake she almost made! Thank God she was saved from a life of misery!

Or is it merely that Hollywood believes women are this fickle, this flighty, and so keeps offering us this scenario, hoping that we’ll see ourselves in it?
I’m not really sure which would be worse. And I’m not sure I’ve complained about this particular annoying trope before, because usually these movies don’t offer any apparent alternatives for being the silly and not-very-romantic idiocy that they are. But Letters to Juliet is different. It’s already half a lovely, bittersweet movie about longing and romance and making mistakes and living with regret. It’s hard to see how the screenwriters — Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan (Flushed Away) — didn’t see how the lovely half of their story could have transformed the obvious, unconvincing, unlovely other half into something truly marvelous, for a film that was 100 percent perfect.

But they didn’t.

There’s Englishwoman Claire (Vanessa Redgrave: Atonement, Evening), see, who arrives in Verona, Italy, in search of the Italian man she was in love with but ran away from half a century earlier. Claire was beckoned by Sophie (Amanda Seyfried: Dear John, Chloe), an American on vacation in Verona — a pre-honeymoon, in fact, with her fiancé, Victor (Gael García Bernal: Blindness, The Science of Sleep) — who has taken up with the women who, as employees of the city, reply to all the lovelorn missives heartbroken women leave for the fictional Juliet Capulet (of Romeo and Juliet fame) at Juliet’s House. The movie avoids the tackiness of this modern tourist trap (though I’m not sure if that is to its credit or not) to indulge in the sappy romance of it… though one must wonder if anyone who is applying to Juliet for relationship advice actually knows how her romance with Romeo ended. Anyway, these Veronan women, with temporary help from Sophie, offer their immediate advice by mail to the letters left every day for Juliet. Except that Sophie discovered Claire’s letter, lamenting her abandonment of poor, handsome Lorenzo, which had been stuffed in a crevice and overlooked for 50 years, and is compelled to respond, telling Claire that it’s never too late to chase after happiness.

So: Sophie is bored, because Victor is busy meeting suppliers for the Tuscan restaurant he’s about to open in New York, and she tags along on Claire’s road trip of the surrounding countryside to find her Lorenzo. Accompanying Claire is her grandson, Charlie (Christopher Egan: Eragon), a truly unlikeable young man, and yet if you’re of the suspicion that Sophie will eventually fall for Charlie, even though he’s an odious, arrogant stick in the mud, you are not wrong.

And that’s where Letters to Juliet fails. Claire’s story is deeply touching and beautifully performed by Redgrave and Seyfried, whose Sophie works as a sort of researcher for Claire’s quest, ferreting out all the many possible Lorenzos for them to track down (there are lots of them), while Sophie contemplates her relationship with Victor. It’s all gorgeously shot in the actual locations, and will make you want to jump on a plane and stroll around Italy eating amazing food and drinking amazing wine and hopefully falling in love yourself (which you will embrace heartily and not run away from, now that you’ve seen how Claire regrets that she did). And in the smart, not-obvious version of Letters to Juliet, Sophie would not run away from Victor but would take a fresh look at why she fell in love with him in the first place, even though it appears they may be in a bit of a rut at the moment, with his work keeping him preoccupied. There must have been a reason, mustn’t there, that she agreed to marry him? Or did she fall as quickly and inadvisably for Victor as she does for Charlie?

I wish the screenwriters or director Gary Winick (Bride Wars, Charlotte’s Web) were able to convey a sense of Sophie making a bad decision, and that 50 years later, she’d be on her own search for Victor, to apologize for abandoning him with seemingly little reason. But there’s no sense of that at all. Instead, we’re meant to see it as romantic that Sophie makes a hasty decision based on the most capricious of reasons, totally in contrast to the lesson of the other side of the tale.

This should be a better movie than it is. It’s an inexplicable shame that it isn’t.

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