By Simon Lewis.
“Love is an acquired taste” reads the tagline for Little Italy, a Canadian romantic comedy about former childhood sweethearts that find themselves on either side of a feud between their family’s neighbouring pizza parlours. But the latest rom-com from How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days director Donald Petrie would struggle to satisfy even the most forgiving of tastes considering the films tonally imbalanced and oftentimes needlessly crass script. When the best joke in a romantic comedy shamelessly apes on a Gordon Ramsay meme, you’ve got problems.
Having been rivals as kids and now all grown up, Nikki (Emma Roberts) is a high-flying chef in London while Leo (Hayden Christensen) still works at his father’s pizza parlour.
His dad feuds on a daily basis with his former partner and now next door rival – who also happens to be Nikki’s Dad. Little Italy is a Romeo and Juliet-style love story then, only with marinara sauce and football (for some reason) thrown in.
The two leads are pleasant enough, with Roberts the clear standout offering great charm and the certain sweetness you’d expect from the leading lady of a romantic comedy. Christensen however never really extends past the “good looking guy with a cute smile” schlock – and that’s no fault of his own, it’s just how threadbare and basic the script allows him to be. His Italian aesthetic and accent are both pretty hilarious though. It looks like he was bathing in Hawaiian tropic and bought some Just For Men in bulk. The Italian schtick is so weird – particularly in night scenes lit by generic neon – it appears they’re trying to age the 37-year-old past his years to look like a middle aged mafia man fresh from a stint on the Sopranos.
The Mystic Pizza director takes cues from his past success – using a pizza parlour as the set of most of the action – but unlike Petrie’s late 80s cult classic, Little Italy is completely void of the charisma that made Julia Roberts’ debut launch her into superstardom. Do The Right Thing’s pizza shop owner Danny Aiello also pops up as the jolly granddad of Christensen’s character in another nod to classic pizza-based cinema. But rather than evoke these gems of yesteryear, seeing Sal only makes you yearn for something even remotely close to those classic flicks.
Trying to garner the flavour of other culinary movies like John Favreau’s excellent Chef, it unfortunately misses the mark when it comes to both the charm and wit Favreau clocked-up with ease from his low-key yet stellar 2014 effort. Unfortunately for Petrie, the comedy in Little Italy is largely low brow with physical comedy skits that should be easy wins but instead come across as forced and oftentimes cringeworthy. A pat down from a middle-aged female police officer is a particular low point, as Anakin Skywalker is inappropriately felt up by a woman twice his age all the while making jokes about his physique as leery bystanders look on laughing.
It’s not just the out of place sexual assault that jars, constant out of touch references to millennials, and being “modern” make for toe-curling viewing on occasion. Nikki tries to strike a chord as a ‘strong independent woman’ but the go-getting career girl character type seems a little unremarkable in the modern age. Not to mention the Indian characters on both sides of the pizza wars, who initially appear as the comic relief but unfortunately come across as a bit low key racist. Not like full blown Fisher-Stevens-in-Short-Circuit” racist, but enough to be classed as dated and borderline offensive – no matter how casual it may be. Even worse is the fact they just completely disappear about half way through. Not Leo’s fake tan though, that’s there for the duration.
If you had to wheedle some sort of positive from Little Italy, like in a forced kind of way, there are a couple of sweet moments in there to its credit: The secret friendship between the mums draws a smile, and Emma Roberts is actually quite endearing as the prodigal daughter returning home from her high-flying chef job in the UK. She’s more often than not really charming as Nikki, without ever being agonisingly smug or portrayed merely as eye candy, and that is quite refreshing to see.
Little Italy currently sits at 21% on Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s no surprise to see why. The tone is completely all over the place. Shot with a light-hearted, whimsical style, the awfully formulaic script is filled with low brow toilet humour and peppered with profanity for no real reason. The conflict is jarring as a result, and with two pensioners at it like rabbits and a constant leer over Hayden Christensen, it’s an uncomfortable watch for the most part. Awkward parental chats about sex, a visit to a curry house purely to make a lewd pun, and the aforementioned seedy cop pat down are out of touch and completely miss the mark.
…I am super jealous of Leo’s wood burning pizza oven in his kitchen though.
Little Italy is released on VOD on the 11th of March.
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