A film review by Craig J. Koban February 10, 2010


2010, PG-13, 91 mins.


Kristen Bell: Beth /Josh Duhamel: Nick / Anjelica Huston: Celeste / Danny DeVito: Al / Will Arnett: Antonio / Jon Heder: Lance / Dax Shepard: Gale / Alexis Dziena: Joan / Don Johnson: Beth's Dad


Directed by Mark Steven Johnson /  Written by David Diamond and David Weissman

You know you are in trouble when the very first laugh in a romantic comedy does not occur until 15 minutes into it…and is not derived from one of the human participants.  

Yes, the only modest chuckle to be had in WHEN IN ROME occurs dangerously late into the film courtesy of a cell phone ring tone going off at an inopportune time during a wedding.  The resulting comedic desperation really begins to reveal itself when inanimate objects trump the performers for laughs.

WHEN IN ROME belongs on a long and highly disagreeable list of recent romcoms that have all asked a very simple question:  How hard can it possibly be to make a rousing, endearing, original, funny, passionate, and engaging romcom?  If WHEN IN ROME could speak for itself, then it would resoundingly respond by stating, “It’s damn hard.”  What’s really disconcerting is that they have been so many innovative and memorable examples of the genre lately, like FEVER PITCH, FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, DEFINITELY MAYBE, KNOCKED UP, THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN, and, yes, last year’s outstanding (500) DAYS OF SUMMER.  Yet, for every one of those sublimely pleasurable romcoms there’s endless examples that fall thuddingly flat.  WHEN IN ROME is in the latter category, and at times it wears its pathetic mediocrity like a dubious badge of honor. 

The first warning sign should have occurred with a quick, cursory look at the credits: The writers for the film are David Diamond and David Weissman, the pair that were criminally responsible for one of the most God-awful comedies of the previous decade in last year’s OLD DOGS (which also incredulously neutered Robin Williams and John Travolta of of all of their fine comic instincts).  That’s strike number one.  The second strike against the film would be that it's a deplorable comic deadzone: WHEN IN ROME uses the most stale and rudimentary of sight gags and slapstick to garner huge laughs, but embarrassingly fails at just about every waking moment.  The third strike against it would be that the lead actors – despite being attractive, charming, and appealing – have chemistry that teeters between being woefully manufactured and wholeheartedly lacking in overall passion.  Hell, the film does not even work as a beautiful and opulent travelogue picture:  It becomes so clear that many of the exterior shots of Rome were not created on location, but on a backlot in New York that it all but erodes the type of romanticism for the location that the film is trying to stir up.  Rome in WHEN IN ROME becomes such an artificial construct that, by comparison, it makes Pandora in AVATAR looks like a National Geographic documentary. 

WHEN IN ROME (which has definitive echoes on 1954’s THREE COINS IN A FOUNTAIN) opens in The Big Apple where we meet a museum curator named Beth (the always adorable and fetching Kristen Bell, who looks mostly ill at ease here trying to eek out guffaws) that is prepping the largest exhibition of her career.  She becomes depressed early on when she has an impromptu meeting with her ex (played in a cameo by the utterly wasted Lee Pace) where he reveals to her that he has met the woman of his dreams and will soon be married.  This news hits Beth quite hard, whom has been clamoring for the “right man” to settle down with and start a life together.  Her grief gets no better with the news that her little sister, Joan (Alexis Dziena) is engaged to an Italian man that she just met.   



Beth decides to leave the final preparations of her big assignment to her assistant and proceeds to fly over to Rome (again, a hodgepodge of crummy second unit cinematography and an absurdly and laughably disguised New York backlot) to spend no more than 48 hours hooking up with her family to support her sister’s marriage.  During the reception Beth does manage to lock eyes with a hunky and goofily debonair klutz named Nick (Josh Duhamel), and the flirtation between the pair continues well into the reception.  Unfortunately, Beth decides to halt any romantic attachment to the man when she sees him with a shouldering brunette.  Discouraged more than ever, Beth drunkenly strolls over to the “Fountain of Love” and removes five distinct coins from the water, completely oblivious to local superstitions:  Anyone that retrieves a coin from the fountain will instantly become the object of desire for the person that put the coin in the fountain.   

Beth soon returns to her hometown, never fully realizing what she has done, and when she attempts to settle back into her work life she is pursued (make that stalked) by four complete strangers whose coins she picked up out of the fountain.  One of the film’s many nagging problems is that these men are more creepy and annoying than they are haplessly loveable and endearing: There is a somewhat failed street magician (Jon Heder, once again proving that he is not the stuff of movie comic gold outside of NAPOLEON DYNAMITE), a painter (Will Arnett, proving once again how his film roles have failed to live up to his masterfully inspired and hilarious comic performance on TV’s ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT), a sausage kingpin (Danny Devito, sweet and sincere in a few moments, but kind of out of his element here) and a self-loving male model (Dax Shepard, getting the only respectable laughs in the film in a largely scant and underwritten role).  While Beth tries as she does to avoid these men at every moment (why she does not simply call the police and take out restraining orders is beyond me), she is being perused by Nick, but is plagued by whether or not he is doing so out of real love or because he is inclined to do so because of that fountain superstition.  Any film viewer in the audience without a pea-sized brain will be able to guess the answer to that conundrum with lightning fast assuredness. 

I guess I am willing to forgive just about any romcom for being formulaic (some of the best ones have a narrative trajectory that we can see with reasonable accuracy from scene one), but WHEN IN ROME’s chief fault is not its obviousness, but with its blandness and senselessness throughout.  The premise itself is head-shaking enough and the story hits every cookie cutter ingredient from the rom com recipe book, but what makes WHEN IN ROME all the more forgettable and disposable is how it takes two limitlessly attractive leads and squanders them in shrill, charmless, and baffling slapstick antics.  Scene after scene displays the performers’ discomfort; they never really seem to have a clue as to how broad or straight to play the gags.  Moments involving a seemingly indestructible vase comes to mind, or one involving Nick’s weak attempts at translating Beth’s speech to the largely Italian wedding crowd.  All of these scenes illicit absolute silence in the movie theatre.  Duhamel has the right manner of dialing in cocky bravado with a bumbling idiocy that is nice and Kristen Bell can be enormously alluring and likeable, but here the two talented actors are more like props that fully realized characters. 

Just consider one of the worst scenes that I have seen in a film in an awfully long time: During it Nick decides to take Bell out to a Manhattan restaurant that serves its patrons…in complete darkness.  No.  I am not fooling you.  The waitress – wearing night vision goggles – takes the pair into a secluded and completely unlit room where other patrons are sitting at their tables attempting to engage one another without being able to see anything.  All of the servers and waiters can see everything, of course, which gives them a clear advantage over the customers (especially when it comes to issues of intimacy between the people at the tables).  Now, this scene is intolerably unfunny not only because it does not exists in any natural plane of reality that I know of, but also because it’s also lethally bad for how it tries to drum up cheap gags involving Bell and Duhamel bumping into other patrons, spilling drinks, and so forth.  It’s one of those incomprehensibly wretched movie moments where you simultaneously feel absolute pity as well as condemnation for the actors:  It’s sad to see endowed performers reduce themselves in the ways WHEN IN ROME does. 

The film was directed by Mark Steven Johnson, who previously made the touching coming-of-age drama, SIMON BIRCH, the lamentably underrated comic book adaptation of DAREDEVIL and the rightfully chastised adaptation of GHOST RIDER.    Despite his recent focus on comic book efforts, Johnson has a past with comedy (he wrote the first GRUMPY OLD MEN film), but WHEN IN ROME is so lacking in invention, magic, and, well, laughs and romance that, if there is any fairness in the world, he should not be allowed to touch this genre again.  Just how desperate and unrefined are Johnson’s methods here?  There’s one moment in the film when Jon Heder’s magician character has a personal assistant that video tapes his escapades to win over Beth’s heart.  The assistant is revealed to be a character that has a shocking similarity in mannerisms and voice to the character of Pedro in NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, which is really hammered home when we learn that Efron Ramirez (who played Pedro) plays the assistant.  This is a new low for comedy when characters are essentially plagiarized from other comedies in hopes of yielding uproarious reactions from viewers.  Instances like this are indicative of the relative worth in WHEN IN ROME, which stumbles out of the gate and never recovers during its 91 minute running time.

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