After enduring some of the grimmest romantic comedies since Leopold met Loeb, audiences have every right to be wary of the latest two to come to market, "Just Wright" and the subject at hand, "Letters to Juliet." Miraculously, they're both enjoyable. You heard me. I'm as stunned as you are.
The only thing they have in common, really, is an investment in their characters' fundamental decency as they search, the long way around, for true love. "Letters to Juliet" is being packaged as a vehicle for Amanda Seyfried, who plays a fact-checker and aspiring writer for The New Yorker accompanying her fiance, an exuberantly single-minded restaurateur ( Gael Garcia Bernal), on a foodie vacation to Verona, Italy. Here, centuries ago, Romeo met Juliet. Today (and this is the true part) lovelorn letters to Shakespeare's tragic teen heroine are left at a sacred spot, answered by the score by volunteers devoted to keeping the myth alive.
Sophie, our heroine, falls in with these women while her man is off chasing wine tastings and such. She answers one particularly juicy letter squirreled away behind a brick in the sacred Verona wall. Fifty years earlier, Claire — a dewy English teen on holiday in Italy — fell in love with a dashing Italian before letting life take her in other, more sensible directions. Through the machinations of the plot, Sophie's artful reply to the letter writer of old brings her to Verona, in good health and with dangerously high hopes. Claire is played by Vanessa Redgrave, who is the best thing that could've happened to a movie like this.
Much of the picture concerns the search for the old beau, conducted by Claire, Sophie and Claire's starchy but adorable grandson (a bland-ish Christopher Egan). It's clear as a bell that the grandson exists to tempt Sophie and bring her doubts about her own unsatisfying relationship into sharper focus. As Claire and company scour the region for the long-lost Lorenzo, it's simply a matter of time before the right one shows up, astride a fantastic-looking horse, surveying his vineyard, looking as though he might at any moment break into a reprise of "If Ever I Would Leave You."
The key to the film's success is its lack of strain. As written by Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan, this isn't one of those pushy slapstick affairs; it's more romantic than comic, and despite the corn there are no villains (not even the nattering fiance is demonized). Seyfried isn't being tested here, exactly, anymore than Diane Lane was challenged as an actress in "Under the Tuscan Sun." But she delivers a solid and easy star performance. Some young performers lack a relatable quality; Seyfried has it, even with those old-school, big-screen peepers.
The ads for the picture barely acknowledge Redgrave's presence, which is weird, because she's the primary reason "Letters to Juliet" rises above the routine. A lesser performer would've milked the pathos and strained for the comedy, letting us know she's too good for the fluff at hand. It ain't Shakespeare. But it's no "Bounty Hunter" either.
✭✭✭ Letters to Juliet – 105 min. Rated PG: Language, sensual images, rude behaviorCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times