Thursday, May 13, 2010

Letters to Juliet: Special delivery

Letters to Juliet (2010) • View trailer for Letters to Juliet
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for no particular reason
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.13.10
Buy DVD: Letters to Juliet • Buy Blu-Ray: Letters to Juliet (Single-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo)

Rising young female stars must tread carefully, lest they be seduced by the easy money of dumb, career-killing romantic comedies or questionable horror flicks.

Consider the fate of Sarah Michelle Gellar, who went from worldwide fame as TV's Buffy, the Vampire Slayer to utter obscurity in a few short years, thanks to a string of misfires that included Simply Irresistible, Harvard Man and a pair of live-action Scooby-Doo entries. The latter two may have made money, but they didn't prevent a career slide that has seen four recent films get only minimal release or go straight to video.
Charmed by how so many people leave messages for the romantic spirit of
Shakespeare's Juliet, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) helps gather a day's worth of
such missives ... only to discover, tucked behind a loose rock, a letter that has
remained unread for half a century.

Alternatively, let's examine the case of Amanda Seyfried.

She's also a former TV actress, having spent a season each on the soaps As the World Turns and All My Children, before getting a high-profile supporting part on Veronica Mars (as the ill-fated Lily Kane). That was followed by a continuing presence on the acclaimed series Big Love, along with occasional small film roles; she struck gold with her effervescent work in the 2008 big-screen adaptation of Mamma Mia.

Holding one's own against Meryl Streep is no easy task.

Although Seyfried's detour into the gore-laden idiocy of last year's Jennifer's Body was a misfire, she has gotten strong notices more recently for her work in Atom Egoyan's sensuously charged drama, Chloe. That, coupled with her earnest performance in Dear John a few months ago, bespeaks an actress clearly trying to shape a career that'll last.

All of which brings us to Letters to Juliet.

Director Gary Winick's romantic charmer, scripted by Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan, certainly isn't anything special; its completely predictable storyline takes no unexpected detours, treads no fresh ground. But familiarity isn't a sin if choice ingredients help freshen a familiar recipe, and the ingredients here include Seyfried and co-star Vanessa Redgrave, both radiant in a heartwarming little tale certain to please those seeking relief from the approaching summer season bombast.

Besides, the premise that drives this story is truly delightful.

Seyfried stars as Sophie, a resourceful fact-checker who works for The New Yorker magazine  a well-cast Oliver Platt pops up briefly as her editor  and harbors a secret desire to become a writer. She's more or less engaged to Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal), a budding restaurateur with a tendency to regard everything he drinks or tastes as "amazing" or "incredible" ... words he never seems to use with respect to Sophie, or anything she does.

The phrase "self-absorbed jerk" springs to mind pretty quickly.

The accusation takes greater shape when Sophie and Victor take a "pre-honeymoon" vacation to Italy, a trip she hopes will strengthen their romantic bond. Alas, Victor's mind rarely strays from the many vendors he hopes to meet, who will stock his Manhattan restaurant with wine, cheese and all other manner of foodstuffs.

Sophie, left on her own in Verona, chances upon a wall beneath a balcony staged to resemble the key scene from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Visitors to this site, mostly women in various states of distress, leave written notes attached to the wall. Curious, Sophie watches for the rest of the day, and is surprised when  after everybody else leaves  a woman gathers all the notes into a basket.

Sophie follows her into a charming home and is introduced to the quartet of "Juliet's secretaries," for that's what they are. All the people at the wall have written letters of love, anguish or personal strife to Juliet; these women pen and then mail thoughtful, hopefully supportive replies.

Sophie, her budding writer's instinct at a boil, smells a good story.

She doesn't know the half of it. While helping gather notes the next day, Sophie discovers one that has remained buried behind a rock for 50 years. It speaks of love not pursued: the distress of a young woman who couldn't find the courage to commit to the young man she met in Italy, choosing instead to return to her native England.

Sophie begs to be allowed to answer this note; miraculously, it reaches its recipient. Days later  still abandoned by Victor  Sophie is startled to be accosted by Charlie (Christopher Egan), a condescending, stuffed-shirt Brit who resents having been dragged to Italy by his grandmother, Claire (Redgrave), who has been encouraged by Sophie's letter to try to locate "her Lorenzo" after all these years.

Charlie, irritated by the whole situation and genuinely concerned that his grandmother will find nothing but heartbreak, blames Sophie for the entire mess. She, quite contrarily, is delighted by this turn of events, and not merely because her 'good story' just became a whole lot better.

She and Claire bond immediately, the latter becoming something of a replacement for the mother who abandoned Sophie and her father when she was just a child.

And so this unlikely threesome embarks on an Italian road trip, sifting through a series of possible candidates while their own interpersonal dynamics subtly shift.

Victor scarcely knows  or cares  that Sophie has left Verona.

Raise your hands, folks, if you believe the initial frozen chill between Sophie and Charlie will thaw.

OK, fine, yes ... but that's not the point. Sophie has some solid backstory, and Seyfried explores it to full effect; she makes this young woman passionate, resourceful and  wait, look for it, there it is  unexpectedly vulnerable at moments. She's a thoroughly engaging heroine, and the quest she precipitates may be unlikely, but it's utterly delightful.

More crucially, Seyfried holds her own against the radiant Redgrave, who threatens to steal this film with her exquisitely layered performance as Claire. This woman wears the wisdom of maturity with the regal bearing of a venerated philosopher, but makes no big deal about it; she's also, at the blink of an eye, an uncertain old woman terrified by the likelihood that this foolish quest will dash a romantic memory she has cherished for half a century.

Then, too, the growing relationship between Claire and Sophie unfolds with poignant delicacy. Only those with hearts of stone will remain dry-eyed when, at a low moment for both, Claire comforts the younger woman by brushing her hair. All emotions are on display: We see them in Seyfried's eyes, as Sophie holds her breath while experiencing this loving gesture that she never received from her own mother.

The two guys battling for Sophie's attention are unfortunately unbalanced. Bernal is a much stronger actor, and he makes Victor a flamboyantly colorful, fully dimensioned character, even as we grow to dislike him. Egan, in lamentable contrast, is a bit of a stick. Granted, Charlie is supposed to be a bit of a stick, but Egan rather overplays the blandness card.

The clever, love song-laden soundtrack includes a pair of poignant ballads by Colbie Caillat, along with Taylor Swift's "Love Story" and a gaggle of Italian melodies ... including Caterina Caselli's Italian-language cover of Neil Diamond's "I'm a Believer," which is a hoot.

Modest films like this never should be dismissed as inconsequential filler in between bigger projects. Way back in the day, Letters to Juliet would have been the worthy bottom half of a double feature ... and we regard a surprising number of former B-films, all these years later, with greater respect than their forgotten A-film companions.

I was reminded, more than once while watching this film, of 1996's Bed of Roses, a similarly simple  but equally charming  little love story that deftly paired Christian Slater with Mary Stuart Masterson. It made scarcely a ripple on the cinematic pond, and deserved to do much better.

Let's try to write a happier ending for Letters to Juliet.

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