Mark Reviews Movies

LETTERS TO JULIET

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Gary Winick

Cast: Amanda Seyfried, Christopher Egan, Vanessa Redgrave, Gael García Bernal, 

MPAA Rating: PG (for brief rude behavior, some language and incidental smoking)

Running Time: 1:39

Release Date: 5/14/10


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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 13, 2010

Here are the two plots of Letters to Juliet: 1.) A young professional woman arrives in Verona with her workaholic fiancé and meets a guy she can't stand; and 2.) a woman in her 60s comes to the city to find the man she loved 50 years ago but had to leave because of obligations at home.

The one is the plot outline for almost any generic romantic comedy one can bring to mind (minus, perhaps, the boyfriend and changing the locale), and if I cared more about it, I'd find a better, more negative term than "genre" to define the niche plotlines like that one deserve to be labeled under. Off the top of my head, let's go with "brand." Yes, brand, as in, these are the stories that have become easily marketable and easy for an audience to digest, so much so that there's no reason to mess with the elements of the brand.

The shame of it is that the second story is latent with potential. It is inherently a romantic notion, and there are some real possibilities to the story, even when it's crammed in to the other.

But back to the heroine of the first story. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is a fact checker for the New Yorker. She wants to become a writer. Her fiancé is Victor (Gael García Bernal), a chef about to open a restaurant. Since he will be so busy with the business of the restaurant soon, the couple goes on a pre-honeymoon to Verona.

Victor, the disinterested cad he needs to be for Sophie's story to work, uses the trip to visit the local suppliers for his venture, leaving Sophie to sightsee on her own. She stumbles across the traditionally recognized home of Juliet Capulet of Romeo and Juliet fame, where women daily post letters of love-related issues on the wall. Sophie becomes involved in the answering of the letter, responding to one from a woman who, 50 years ago, left the city and her beloved.

Enter the second story. Claire (Vanessa Redgrave), the woman from the letter, arrives in Verona because of Sophie's response with her grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan), the arrogant cad he needs to be so Sophie can hate him and discover his sensitive side. She has decided to find her long-lost Lorenzo, and Sophie tags along, hoping to write the story for the magazine.

There is a very clear problem with Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan's script. Sophie writing the letter is the inciting incident for Claire's story. Claire is the character with something to gain or lose. Her actions define the plot, and if there's a need to go all basic dramatic structure on this movie (which apparently there is), Claire is the protagonist.

Beyond having the more intriguing tale behind Claire, Sophie does nothing. She is an observer and, at her most influential, an aide, yet the script ignores this most basic of storytelling necessities. Instead of allowing Claire to talk about her experiences and trying to relate how this journey affects her, Rivera and Sullivan flip the entire thing around to focus on Sophie.

There is nothing to Sophie beyond her relationships to the two men in her life (and her writing Claire's story). One of these two men is unnecessary to the plot, and one could just flip a coin to determine which one to eliminate. Get rid of Charlie, and Sophie can decide whether her relationship with Victor is worthwhile. Get rid of Victor, and she can determine whether her relationship with Charlie is worthwhile. Either way, it's a passive action, and one that would rely entirely on how Claire's story influences her.

Redgrave works incredibly well under the limited development Claire has. She imparts wisdom with the most sincere, gracious tones, and as her search around Verona progresses, the hopes and disappointments of discovering each Lorenzo and finding out he is not the one of her memory are effective. Her performance leads to a certain regret of what could have been.

Sophie and Charlie go through the motions. They hate each other. Then they exchange quick glances of curiosity. They talk about the now mandatory difficult childhood each of them had (Sophie's mom ran off when she was young, while Charlie's parents died when he was a child). They begrudgingly accept each other's existence, glance some more, and quickly decide they cannot live without each other.

Seyfried, at least, has a charming quality that helps steady the formula, and Claire's reduced role balances out a lot of the rest. Unfortunately, Letters to Juliet is too mistaken in its basic structure, and that fact is made clear after the climax of Claire's story, when it goes on far too long to get the two we don't care so much about together.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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