Letters to Juliet
Starring Amanda Seyfried, Gael Garcia Bernal, Vanessa Redgrave, Christopher Egan
Directed by Gary Winick
Rated PG

Nicholas Sparks better watch his back. Because when it comes to melodramatic, bland love stories focused on beautiful teenagers, there’s a new sheriff in town. The writing duo of Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan have created a drama, Letters to Juliet, that could knock Sparks off his sugary, romantic high horse.

The supernaturally gorgeous Amanda Seyfried — whose enormous eyes and pout recall the animated goldfish from Disney’s Pinocchio — stars as Sophie. A lowly fact checker at the blue-chip magazine The New Yorker, Sophie harbors ambitions above her station and a secret desire to write. Her fiance Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal) is a harried, distracted, high-energy chef about to open his first Manhattan restaurant. The kind of prematurely adult, flush young couple that seems to only exist in the movies, the pair decide to take a pre-honeymoon to Verona, Italy, where Sophie hopes for romance. But Victor turns the getaway into a work trip, visiting cheese mongers, olive oil purveyors, and wine auctions for his upcoming restaurant. But there is something out-of-sync with Victor and Sophie, whose precociously Nancy Myers-style romantic frustrations and lack of sexual chemistry suggest a long-married 40- or 50-something couple; she’s pining for romance, while he’s a nose-to-the-grindstone workaholic.

Abandoned by her husband-to-be in the exceedingly gorgeous Verona, Sophie is romance-starved and open to exploitation. She discovers a Verona subculture of Romeo and Juliet-inspired girls and women who tuck their heartfelt written messages into a kind of Wailing Wall for lovelorn ladies, believing Shakespeare’s tragic heroine Juliet will answer their distress. A cadre of multigenerational Italian women have made it their task to write responses to the legions of women, and Sophie temporarily joins their ranks.

Plucking Juliet letters from the wall, Sophie finds a 50-year-old letter tucked into a crevice and writes to its owner, a British grandmother who loved and lost a handsome Veronian years ago. Moved by Sophie’s response, Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) travels back to Italy with her handsome, contrary grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan) in tow, anxious to find her long-ago lover. Moved by the romance of the notion, and sensing a juicy story to begin her writing career, Sophie uses her fact-checking skills to help Claire track down Lorenzo (Franco Nero, Redgrave’s real-life partner).

The outcome of Letters to Juliet will be predictable for most viewers. The one curveball is Redgrave, whose solid gravitas suggests the tonal non-sequitur of Meryl Streep dropped onto the set of The Real Housewives of Orange County. Redgrave’s heartfelt, nuanced performance is the one dose of reality and substance in this paper-thin plot. Her intelligent, careful gestures — from the way she strokes Sophie’s hair to the fear in her eyes when she finally sees Lorenzo again — make the rest of the enterprise look glaringly artificial.

Letters to Juliet is inoffensive and expected, a banal diversion with very little to recommend it beyond a refreshingly sweet G-rated approach to sex, some lovely scenery of the Tuscan countryside, two eye-candy leads, and Redgrave’s Claire, whose passionate pursuit of Lorenzo only serves to highlight the superficiality of the expected budding romance between Sophie and Charlie. Banality is certainly a lesser crime than the nihilism, joyful sadism, sheer incompetence, stupidity, or hate-mongering that can define lackluster movie-making. But it also provides little inspiration to recommend a film that, among its offenses, manages to utterly waste the charming Bernal, whose one-note, abrasive performance will make viewers long for less rather than more of him.

“Chick flick” has become a blanket term to describe many great films that happen to focus on romance, relationships, or women’s lives. But Letters to Juliet affirms the stereotype of the chick flick as a conventional, short-on-story-and-long-on-romance piffle that insults women’s intelligence as much as men’s. Gary Winick, director of the unforgivably horrible Bride Wars, is threatening to become a serial maker of chick pablum, suggesting that the biggest problem with this genre may not be the audience of uncritical women who flock to such dreck, but the mediocre directors and writers who keep making them.

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