When in Rome, they say, do as the Romans do. Kristen Bell, Josh Duhamel and company take this advice to heart. Their movie might as well be called “When in a Romantic Comedy,” as it couldn’t be more formulaic.
Convention #1: The Career Woman. Straight out of the playbook of Sandra Bullock (in “The Proposal”) or Katherine Heigl (in “27 Dresses”), Bell plays Annie, who is struggling with the Dilemma of the Modern Woman. She really loves her “artistic” job (as a curator for the Guggenheim — as compared to Bullock’s publisher and Heigl’s TV producer), so how can she find time for love?! In case the central tension isn’t made clear by her tightly pulled back ponytail, in the first scene, she tells her dad why she is single: “That’s because I have a relationship with my job. And when I find someone I like more than my job, that’s when I’ll get engaged.” In the next scene, she adds foreshadowing to the exposition: “Instead of following a fairy tale, I have a job.”
Convention #2: The Sloppy Male. When Duhamel’s Nick walks in, you know he’s laid-back and goofy. He arrives late to his best friend’s wedding without his bow tie on, stumbles, drops his phone and clumsily tries to pick it up as it rings loudly. Nick wears backwards hats while playing cards with the boys! Since Annie and Nick are both extremely attractive people with aggressively quirky (read: ugly) friends, they immediately hit it off! Maybe Nick can teach Annie to loosen up her buttons, relax and enjoy life, much like messy James Marsden taught Heigl in “27 Dresses” or cynical Gerard Butler taught Heigl in “The Ugly Truth” … or goofy Seth Rogan taught Heigl in “Knocked Up.” (Ed. note: We would list more, but these are Heigl’s only three real movies.)
Convention #3: Magic Realism. At her sister’s wedding in Rome, Annie is dismayed when it appears that Nick might have a girlfriend, and she confesses her inner emotions to the Fountain of Love outside the chapel (as Isla Fischer did to mannequins in “Confessions of a Shopaholic”). After her monologue, Annie steals five coins from the magic fountain. Each of the coins was thrown into the fountain by a desperate man-cum-B-list-comedian; as she pulls out their coin, she magically captures the undying infatuation of Will Arnett’s artist, Jon Heder’s magician, Dax Shepard’s model and Danny DeVito’s entrepreneur. (Good thing she didn’t pull out the coins of any women! That would be awkward.) The fifth coin — a poker chip — remains a mystery. As Nick romances Annie, the audience is left to figure out whether his enchantment is real or magically induced.
Under the spell, the four suitors follow Annie all the way back to New York, where they make desperate pleas for her affection. Unfortunately, none of the them are even mildly amusing. Given that Bell and Duhamel do have significant chemistry, the annoying antics of the admirers are simply frustrating. The characters are underdeveloped and repetitive.
Convention #4: Stalker Alert. Social commentators have often focused on the troublesome message communicated to men in many romantic comedies. They are taught, essentially, to stalk the object of their desires until she gives in to her true emotions. She may shut you down after your first few attempts, but that’s probably because she loves her job or writes books about how she doesn’t believe in love. Keep persisting, and she’ll finally admit she loves you, too!
“When in Rome” plays on this message, as well, but actually turns it into an interesting commentary. The four suitors are under a spell turning them into crazy stalkers — they chase Annie down the street, paint nude portraits for her, strip in public, break into her apartment. It’s the contrast with Nick — whose intentions are pure — which is fascinating. The film highlights that Nick’s romantic tactics aren’t that far off from the possessed maniacs. He, too, shows up uninvited to her office and sneakily finds her home and cell phone numbers and calls repeatedly. The film suggests that men are taught to essentially stalk their crushes in a way that is almost psychotic.
Convention #5: Underutilization of Talent. In the end, it’s not that “When in Rome” is bad. (It’s a wonderfully pleasant 90 minutes in the theater, if you’re into romantic comedies.) It’s that it’s disappointing. Disney intended to duplicate its success with “Enchanted”: both are modern fairy tales featuring magic, an extremely talented young actress, a serviceable male lead and a unique concept. But whereas “Enchanted” is one of the most whimsical, refreshing rom-coms in recent memory, “When in Rome” fails to offer much that is memorable. Anyone who has seen “Veronica Mars” knows that Kristen Bell is one of the most talented young actresses in the industry — it’s a shame seeing her with a script that has her explaining character motivations to a marble fountain.