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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Letters to Juliet

Amanda Seyfried in picture-perfect Verona, Italy

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Sophie has it made. The fact-checker at the most desirable magazine on Earth, TheNew Yorker, bounces along the bustling streets of Manhattan as if she wandered from a Woody Allen romance, all the while dreaming of becoming a writer. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), the protagonist of Letters to Juliet, is engaged to a terrific hunk, Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal). They are about to embark on a “pre-honeymoon” in Verona, Italy, the storied town where Romeo courted Juliet. A soft hint of discord surfaces, however, when Sophie discovers that Victor hasn’t started packing for their trip, which begins only 12 hours hence. Working feverishly to open his posh Italian restaurant, Victor is more concerned with making the perfect pasta than planning the perfect vacation.

For a pampered, privileged princess like Sophie, that’s enough to sow a seed of doubt.

Aided by the postcard-worthy Italian scenery, Letters to Juliet is defined by a word rare in contemporary Hollywood: charm. It’s also a romantic comedy with low-key situational humor, a bittersweet under-taste and occasional flashes of wit that keep it above the level of a typical 21st-century “chick flick.” The cast was well chosen. Seyfried is sunny and self-assured as the American abroad, and Bernal’s highly caffeinated presence is perfect for his ambitious, self-absorbed character. The screenplay sets the course for trouble when Victor mixes business with pleasure by visiting his restaurant’s wine and cheese suppliers. His decision to inspect a truffle farm proves too much for dreamy Sophie, who would rather trace Shakespeare’s footsteps in the bright Italian sunshine.

The turning point is her discovery of Juliet’s house, a Mecca for lovelorn women who affix letters to the faade as if it is the Wailing Wall of romance. Incredibly, Sophie pulls a brick from the wall and discovers a weathered message left in 1957 by an English lass, Claire, hopelessly in love with a strapping Italian farm boy. Naturally, Claire’s parents could never approve such a union.

By answering that timeworn letter, Sophie inspires Claire (a thoughtful performance by Vanessa Redgrave) to return to Verona on a quest for her long-lost love. Accompanying Claire is her skeptical grandson, Charles (Christopher Egan), a tart-tongued realist who dismisses love as nothing but hormones and intrigues Sophie by smugly putting her down. Better the object of eloquent scorn than to place second to a truffle?

The stock romance-novel plot opens onto an interesting subtext of nostalgia. Although set in 2010, Letters to Juliet inhabits another world, one where the pace is slower and more deliberate and people have time to get to know one another. No one is “connected,” “wired” or “networked.” Sophie’s cell phone is mostly for business and the occasional text from Victor, and her laptop is a blank slate for writing, not the portal to Facebook. The notion of Sophie merely “hooking up” with Charles is absurd. Romance blossoms the old-fashioned way, face-to-face over glasses of wine or gelato.