Monday, August 23, 2010
The Wolfman is off the hook.
Joe Johnston's movie about the lunar lupine tendencies of 19th century Brits was pretty bad, but I didn't think it deserved to stand all year as my least favorite movie of 2010. And now, it doesn't have to.
There are three reasons I wanted to see When in Rome, listed in decreasing order of their importance:
1) It was released in 2010, which means I can use it to flesh out my eventual rankings of the year's movies from best to worst, especially when it's available for free from the library, rather than having to expend a rental on it;
2) It stars Kristen Bell, whom I loved in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and whom I think is absolutely darling in general;
3) It promised to have a lot of pretty pictures of Rome in it.
The film actually satisfied me pretty well on the first two fronts, but almost not at all on the third. And not at all on any other fronts.
When in Rome only spends two ten-minute segments of the movie actually in Rome, each time for a wedding. There's no beforemath or aftermath -- just the weddings themselves, while the rest of the time, it takes place in (ho hum, yawn) New York City.
I don't know about you, but doesn't this seem a bit like location fraud to you?
Before you rule on that, I guess I should give you a little more background. Okay, so the basic idea is that Bell's character (Beth) is a workaholic museum curator whose baby sister is having a surprise wedding in Rome after meeting a dreamy Italian on an airplane two weeks earlier. (Only in the movies.) We know Beth is a workaholic because she has a humorless boss (Anjelica Huston) threatening to fire her for making the trip, and because she spends most of her time in Rome trying to get a cell signal or borrow someone's phone to send an email. We also know she's unlucky in love because of an embarrassing opening scene involving an ex-boyfriend who dumped her (Lee Pace) -- and now that I think of it, huh, this ex-boyfriend never comes back into things after this, begging to have Beth back because he made a mistake. That's strange -- it's the second-most-predictable thing to happen in a movie like this, the last-ditch effort of the ex who spurned her. (The first being that she ends up with the right guy at the end.)
She meets the right guy (Josh Duhamel) pretty early, but misinterprets a drunken kiss the groom's sister plants on him, so she ends up stumbling around in a fountain where the lovelorn make wishes by tossing coins. For reasons that are not entirely clear (except for her drunkenness), she picks out five different coins from the fountain, and five men (who happen to still be within three blocks of this fountain, even though they could have flipped their coins weeks or months earlier) immediately perk to attention and fall in love with her. See, a spell has been cast, magically, by her removal of the coins. But she's none the wiser and returns to New York.
Okay, it's a pretty standard setup for a romantic comedy. You've heard better, you've heard worse.
But here's where a sort-of interesting premise becomes just a foundation to watch a bunch of comic actors work their shtick. As it turns out, each of the five coins she plucks out of the fountain -- as luck would have it -- belong to Americans, or men who are later proven to be Americans. (Will Arnett, in a regrettable decision, plays a painter from New Jersey who is faking being Italian to seem more mysterious). Beyond Arnett, these other four are played by a truly random assortment of individuals: Dax Shepard, playing a narcissistic male model; Napoleon Dynamite's Jon Heder, playing a cheesy magician; Danny DeVito (of all people) as a rich guy; and the film's male lead, Duhamel. (He may or may not actually be the fifth guy, but Beth assumes he is.) Almost immediately, all five are also back in New York along with Beth, stalking her relentlessly, in direct disregard for whether they would actually have the means to figure out who she was or where she lived, or the financial wherewithal/schedule flexibility to get to New York. (Remember, just days earlier, all five were in Rome.) In the most embarrassing example of their fawning, they all show up simultaneously at a restaurant where the theme is that dinner is served in pitch black conditions -- this may be the movie's most ridiculous scene, and it wastes funny actress Kristen Schaal, who plays a hostess.
I realize that I could go on and on talking about how bad When in Rome was, but my original angle was to talk about how this movie fraudulently sold itself as a travelogue film set in Rome. And how much better of a film would it have been if it had stayed there. Not only would it have been an actual return on the promise of the title, but it could have used the Roman settings and some funny cultural differences with Italians or other Europeans to make clever observations about the difference in courtship methods the world over. At least we could have looked at the Roman architecture a bit longer. But no, instead, it moves a bunch of Americans to Rome for five minutes, for no good reason, then just follows them back to New York for a bunch of truly abysmal set pieces. Did I mention that Duhamel's character is also known for having been hit by a bolt of lightning on the field, when he was once a celebrated football player? Why is this important? Answer: It isn't.
I think this post has become a bit disorganized, so I'll wrap it up. But I can't go without telling you about a couple of the movie's other dumb, desperate decisions, and it's all about pointless cameos. First there's Efren Ramirez, who played Pedro in Napoleon Dynamite, and who shows up here to film a couple of the magic tricks performed by Jon Heder's character. It's a measure of how terrible this movie is that instead of being pleased to see Heder and Ramirez reunited, we roll our eyes and question what it all means. Then there's a random bar scene that has no plot function whatsoever, in which Duhamel and an extremely obnoxious Bobby Moynihan (playing his buddy) run into a couple professional athletes, among them former NFL player Lawrence Taylor and Shaquille O'Neal. Why these guys? Why include this scene? Well, because someone somewhere in the crew was friends with them, or their agents were owed favors, or something. It's a complete throwaway scene and should have never happened in the first place.
I should have done as most Romans did, and never seen this movie.