By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Don’t see “When in Rome” if you’re hoping to traipse through a dreamy giambotte of Roman locales. And don’t see it if your longing for a good romantic comedy. Director Mark Johnson’s predictable film delivers on neither count, and is best viewed by those who really don’t care at all what they see. Lucky for Hollywood, we have plenty of those.
But the youngsters who bobble around in this latest permutation of clichéd script #9, wherein an enchantment sends everyone into a tizzy of mistaken amour, are bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and seem to have brushed their teeth. As such, their meanderings are initially attracting. Studying the sociology the movie tries to address is also informing.
However, after the lip gloss fades on the ingénue (Kristen Bell) and the handsome male lead (Josh Duhamel) proves but cardboard cutout, discriminating filmgoers will rethink their benign tolerance and see the wisdom of a long visit to the concession stand. If a trip to the facilities can be worked in, so much the better. Such is the beauty of lousy films.
But good form insists you eventually return to your seat, especially if you came with someone. Granted, most likely you’ve been hornswoggled into seeing this waste of celluloid. But you might as well be made privy to the plot. What the heck…complete the charade. Read the summary that follows and you won’t have to pay attention at all.
Kristen Bell’s Beth, a junior version of Sarah Jessica Parker’s careering Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City,” but with a nicer nose and not yet oh so hip, pines to find Mr. Right and wed. Alas, her drop-dead-and-go-to-heaven job as an assistant curator at the Guggenheim isn’t enough. Gosh, she’s already about 28 and still doesn’t have it all.
But none of this is really brought to bear until little sis (Alexis Dziena) returns from a Roman holiday and announces that, after a two-week, whirlwind courtship, she is engaged to Umberto (Luca Calvani). They will wed in The Eternal City. No big deal. Everyone can just fly over there. Or, maybe the bride’s rich daddy is footing the tab.
In any case, it’s a majestic church and it fills up on the big day. But only one guest among the throng attracts Beth’s furtive attentions. The best man personified, he is Josh Duhamel’s Nick, a former football star at Syracuse who happens to have been Umberto’s roommate. Beth ruffles her feathers; Nick flexes his smile. They exchange barbs.
And gee, things are looking good. That is, except for Beth suddenly turning clumsy and wreaking all sorts of havoc in and around the altar. She then botches a congratulatory toast, an expurgated version of which is translated into Italian by Nick. But matters still seem OK…until later, when she espies Nick kissing a dark-haired beauty in a red dress.
That’s it! No explanations, please. Beth goes the boohoo route, and does what any sensible person would do when the prospect of eternal bliss is snatched away. She gets drunk. But not just plain drunk. More like, swaggering-with-champagne-bottle drunk, wherein the imbiber doffs shoes and continues to swig while wading in a piazza fountain.
But, dear reader, note that this is no ordinary fountain. To the contrary, it is the famed Lover’s Fountain. Merely toss in a coin and make a wish. Presto, undying devotion will come your way. “Hah, that’s a laugh,” issues the scornful Beth to whatever god oversees said spigot. In scoffing defiance she scoops up five coins from their intended destiny.
Well, actually four coins and a poker chip. Pocketing them, she heads home without giving it a second thought. But a funny thing happens on the way to resuming her N.Y.C. life. Bad enough, her boss, Celeste (Anjelica Huston), is busting her about a big project. But suddenly, the strangest gaggle of guys, each professing his adoration, is pursuing her.
One is nuttier than the next. There’s Antonio (Will Arnett), a struggling artist who has followed her from Rome; Lance (Jon Heder), a street magician of considerable talent; Gale (Dax Shepard), an absurdly vain male model; and Danny DeVito as Al the wealthy sausage king. It takes a while for Beth to figure out the spell that has been set in motion.
Meanwhile, jarring bits of slapstick are inserted, perhaps in an attempt to keep us awake. And adding insult to injury, there are less shots of Rome than there are morsels of meat in those dry cups of soup. Likening “When in Rome’s” promise of fairy tale whimsy to a carnival barker’s flimflammery, it occurs that one needn’t go abroad to be pickpocketed.
“When in Rome,” rated PG-13, is a Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release directed by Mark Steven Johnson and stars Kristen Bell, Josh Duhamel and Danny DeVito. Running time: 91 minutes
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