Letters to Juliet: Gary Winick’s Romantic Comedy

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“Letters to Juliet,” Gary Winick’s romantic comedy is truly a trifle, a minor film that tries to cash in on the popularity of Shakespeare’s famous play, “Romeo and Juliet,” the highly picaresque setting of Verona, and the likable presence of up-and-coming star Amanda Seyfried, best known for the hit musical “Mamma Mia!” and more recently seen in Atom Egoyan’s sexual thriller, “Chloe.”
 
World-premiering at the Tribeca Film Fest (in the Galas section), “Letters to Juliet” will be released by Summit Entertainment as an early summer entry, on May 14, and should largely appeal to young and middle-aged women.
 
Severely flawed from both narrative and dramatic standpoints, the film doesn’t stand up critical scrutiny and, I predict, will be dismissed by most critics. And yet, almost despite myself, I was intrigued by the film’s secondary, less commercially exploitable elements, prime among which is the majestic appearance of Vanessa Redgrave, an actress I have adored for decades who doesn’t make many movies anymore.
 
Well into her 70s (she was born in 1937, same year as Jane Fonda), Redgrave, here sporting long white hair, is still luminous, boasting grace and dignity. And, when she is onscreen, the otherwise bland, trivial film comes to life. No doubt, Redgrave is the best thing in the picture, which boasts an international cast, headed by American Seyfried, Brit Redgrave, Mexican Gael Garcia Bernal, Aussie Christopher Egan, and Italian Franco Nero (Redgrave’s longtime lover and now husband).
 
The multi-cultural ensemble actually proves to be a deficiency in the film, in which the romantic triangle (or actually quartet) does not make much sense because you don’t root for Seyfried to be with either beau, Bernal or Egan.
 
The writers would like us to believe that the notion of romantic love can push young people to the limit, that it takes courage for them not to play it safe, take risks that might change one’s life in unpredictable, dramatic ways.
 
Seyfried plays Sophie Hall, an aspiring magazine writer, who with her boyfriend Victor (Bernal) flies from New York to Italy for some much-needed romance. While Victor is attending to some business, Sophia wanders around in the famous Verona courtyard of the star-crossed lover Juliet Capulet of “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s the place where women from all over the world leave Juliet letters of love lost and/or hoped for.
 
In the process, Sophie discovers a 50-year-old letter written to Juliet by Claire Smith (Redgrave) searching for a young Italian who had romanced her as a teen. To Sophie’s surprise, her letter inspires Claire, now a grandmother, to travel to Verona in search of her long-lost love (Nero).
 
Initially, Sophie’s impetus for embarking on her adventure is to further her career. A fact checker, who aims to be an important journalist, Sophie senses a story that might advance her career, perhaps even propel her to high status in her profession. However, once she gets caught up in helping Claire with her “second chance,” Sophie discovers what we viewers have known all along, that in chasing this big story, she was basically running from the stories of her own life.
 
From that point on, the narrative revolves around two triangles. One involves Claire, her grandson Charlie (Egan), and Sophie, searching all over Tuscany. The other triangle places Sophie between two very different male suitors. Whether Sophie makes the “right” choice will be debated by viewers, though, unfortunately, there is no strong chemistry between Seyfried and either beau. 
 
Among other problems, the PG-13 rating must have prohibited any sexual or even sensual scenes, which are crucial for this comedy since verbally it’s rather poorly constructed and written.  Indeed, the life lessons learned by the characters are simplistic, predictable, made worse by the banal way they are expressed by scribes Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan. Thus, all the characters “discover” that it takes courage deal with love, and that true love is not easily won. The whole film is stamped by a superficial male perspective and perhaps would have benefited from greater, more authentic sensitivity to the female characters, which are far more interesting than their male counterparts.
 
Gary Winick has shown lighter touch in handling pictures like “Charlotte’s Web” and particularly the charming comedy, “13 Going on 30,” but here, he seems inhibited by the limitations of the material. “Letters to Juliet” is helmed in a pedestrian, impersonal style, made more alluring by the sharp and knowing imagery of cinematographer Marco Pontecorvo.
 
End Note
 
Reportedly, half a million tourists descend upon the northern Italian city of Verona, just 90 minutes west of Venice, specifically to visit the courtyard where notes of love lost and won are affixed to the stone wall, or to stand on Juliet’s balcony and pose next to a bronze statue of hers, with her right breast polished to a sheen from the tradition of touching it for good luck!