While the name won’t mean much to most people, the presence of director Mark Steven Johnson at the helm of a romantic comedy such as When in Rome is something of a shock development. After all, this is a guy who to date has made his name mostly with comic book adaptations, namely the brilliant (although this is much disputed) 2003 film Daredevil and the decent but unspectacular 2007 film Ghost Rider. As his first foray into the romantic comedy genre, however, When in Rome proves to be not half bad although perhaps he should stick to what he is really good at – superhero movies are more his forte.
New York singleton Beth (Kristen Bell) lives for her job as a museum curator, so much so that her love life suffers as a result. And when her ex boyfriend Brady Sacks (Lee Pace) crashes a work party she has organised to tell her that he is getting engaged to another woman she is understandably rattled. Heading to Rome for the wedding of her sister Joan (Alexis Dziena), Beth meets handsome columnist and former football player Nick (Josh Duhamel), who helps her out when her attempt to uphold tradition by breaking a ceremonial vase goes hideously wrong. Beth visits the famed ‘Fontana Di Amore’ where people throw in a coin to find love. Hoping that some of the magic will rub off on her, Beth takes five coins. It works all right – Beth is followed back to New York by sausage magnate Al (Danny DeVito), magician Lance (Jon Heder), ‘Italian painter’ Antonio (Will Arnett) and male model Gale (Dax Shepard). Nick has fallen for her too – but how can Beth tell if he’s for real or just under the fountain’s spell?
Following the delightful Letters to Juliet, When in Rome is another romance to showcase a beautiful Italian setting, this time that of Rome, the city’s beauty even being made note of in a dialogue that features early in the film. However, unlike that film, the title proves rather deceptive as the city of Rome only actually features in the film for a few scenes before the action moves to the much more familiar and somewhat less beautiful locales of New York City. With this more familiar setting also comes a more familiar feel to the film as director Mark Steven Johnson fails to deliver something that seems more than generic, even with the rather fantastical tinge that is brought in by the plot. There is no real sense of magic on display here and there is far too much effort put into the gags and not enough put into the romance. However, while some of the gags and dialogue are indeed lame and unfunny, the film also has plenty of moments that are sure to raise a few giggles, at least for those who enjoy silly humour. Much of the humour on display here is very much of the slapstick variety and struggles to avoid feeling obvious – a scene involving a loss in translation and the way the male lead spend much of the film being hit by things, hitting things or walking into things are good examples of this – but there is no attempt to hide this fact and the film very much embraces it, not pretending to be more than the sum of its parts, and actually proving quite endearing in its simplicity. Of course, the film won’t appeal to all comic tastes, but there really is some pretty funny stuff here, a scene involving a pitch black restaurant where night vision goggles are required to see being a highlight. As you would expect from a romcom such as this, the story is completely predictable with very few surprises but it does at least have a good, sweet message at its heart and enough charm to make it good feel good viewing. On the performances front, there isn’t much to shout about but everyone at least does a competent job. The leads are both reasonably charming and make for a likable couple but so-so material means that there is no real spark between them. Their chemistry is at least sufficient to maintain our attentions though. The really entertaining performances, however, come courtesy of Danny DeVito, Will Arnett (complete with obviously fake Italian accent), Jon Heder and Dax Shepard, all of whom prove very amusing if unremarkably so. Elsewhere in the cast, the excellent Pushing Daisies star Lee Pace is completely wasted in his minimal role, Alexis Dziena seems to be getting typecast as the ditsy type character and Kate Micucci, playing Beth’s best friend Stacy, and Anjelica Huston, playing Beth’s boss Celeste, are giving nothing of note to do for the most part. All in all, When in Rome proves to be nothing special but it is nonetheless an amusing diversion. So, you won’t fall in love with it but you might just like it.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)
© BRWC 2010.
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