In 1999, Sarah Michelle Gellar starred in a little romantic comedy called Simply Irresistible. In it she played a struggling chef whose dead mother sends her a magic crab that causes her emotions to infect anyone who eats her cooking. This eventually leads her to fall in love with a multi-millionaire paper airplane enthusiast. In 2010, Kristen Bell – another actress coming off of an iconic television role and seeking to make headway into features – starred in the comparatively implausible When in Rome, a ridiculous romantic comedy about how a magical fountain (in Rome, believe it or not) drives a career-driven loner into the arms of her dream guy. I didn’t get a chance to review When in Rome when it was released earlier this year, and am rectifying that situation now.
When in Rome is not a good movie, but then any film about a workaholic who finds love after stealing coins from a fountain in Rome, only to curry the obsessive favor of the four men (Will Arnett, Dax Shepard, Jon Heder and Danny DeVito) whose coins she pilfered clearly has limited ambitions. What director Mark Steven Johnson (best known for directing Daredevil and Ghost Rider… badly) has in mind is a silly little romantic comedy in the classic Roman Holiday mold, which is why the funniest part about the movie is how little screen time is actually spent in Rome. (Where do you think the word “romantic” comes from, Mark?) Romantic locations are a perfect fit for love stories of any sub-genre, so why bother going all the way to Rome just to set up a plot point and then hightail it back to New York where – by sheer mindblowing coincidence – every guy who magically falls in love with our protagonist just so happens to live? If When in Rome actually covered the time our heroine spends in Rome it would be about 12 minutes long. And if you analyze the title further – it’s short for “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” – then it makes even less sense.
But again, let’s not overthink a romantic comedy which begins with our heroine suffering such adorable indignities as running into her ex-boyfriend while she has something green stuck in her teeth and then breaking the high heel of her shoe. Even if we underthink this little rom-com mishmash of tired story elements – like the gaggle of ‘best friends’ who only exist to wince when our leads do something embarrassing, or the big work event that must be jeopardized in the big chase sequence climax – what we’re left with is two charming actors – Kristen Bell and (much to my surprise) Josh Duhamel – who are entirely wasted as romantic leads. These are two attractive and charming performers who deserve better material. Everything feels slapdash in When in Rome. Even the musical number that plays over the credits looks like they must have gotten sleepy and decided to just film the dress rehearsal.
What really needs to be discussed, however, is the feel-good comedy’s obsession with tearing down people with jobs. In Hollywood, dedication to one’s profession is tantamount to Satan Worship for all the good it does anybody. Focusing on one’s career is apparently nothing more than a needless distraction from lovers, friends and family, and must inevitably be sacrificed for one’s greater good. I’m not sure who started this ugly trend, but I sincerely suspect they were talking down to an audience that was too stupid to notice. Here are successful, generally rich filmmakers trying to convince hapless working Joes (and Janes) that succeeding financially will only make them miserable. “They’re keeping us down, man!” the hippy in the back of my head wants to scream at the top of his slurred voice. It’s particularly offensive in family comedies, in which Eddie Murphy or Ben Affleck or whomever has to inevitably sacrifice the financial stability necessary to care for his children in order to prove his love to them. “I love you so much that I won’t be able to feed you next year.” “Thanks Dad!” But I digress.
I brought up the inherently ridiculous Simply Irresistible earlier for a reason, and not just for the offhanded similarity between the career trajectories of the two starlets in question. No, I bring up Simply Irresistible because I actually liked that movie, while When in Rome left my heart as limp as an unimpressive pickle. Simply Irresistible shared the same naïve sensibilities, hopeless dedication to true love and gleefully ridiculous plot machinations, but at least had the dedication to commit to its eccentricities. When in Rome often feels like its fantastical high concept is getting in the way of the fiercely generic “upper class white people falling in love” story it would much rather be telling instead. Simply Irresistible just couldn’t help being a wacky crab-filled love affair with the silliness of romantic comedies. If only Mark Steven Johnson’s film had the cajones to actually meet the standards of films in the same genre. You know, kind of like that expression, “When in Rome…?”