Director: Mark Steven Johnson
Starring: Kristen Bell, Josh Duhamel, Will Arnett, Jon Heder, Dax Shepard, Danny DeVito, Angelica Huston
Running Time: 91 min.
★★ (out of ★★★★)
Whenever I see or hear the phrase, "When in Rome..." I always think of that joke in Anchorman. It's worth mentioning since the movie When in Rome contains only two gags about half as funny as that one. An insipid farce that can't decide whether it wants to be a fairy tale or a romantic comedy, it's also Kristen Bell's first full-fledged starring role, which should be good news. And while this material is clearly way beneath her, she could have done worse. What the film does successfully convey, or at least not hide completely, is that she's a uniquely charismatic actress with a "girl next door" quality who's capable of big things if given the opportunity.
While watching, I couldn't help but wonder what witty, sarcastic put-downs Veronica Mars would come up with if she were forced to sit through this. I've accepted that a role as rich and complex as that one comes along once in a blue moon but it still stings seeing her appear in mindless fluff. The film is only slightly worse than I expected and I expected it to be pretty awful, but the leads do have decent chemistry and it isn't hard to imagine a romantic comedy starring them that could have worked well. Instead, one mistake after another sinks it and the laughs are in short supply, mostly due to poor execution of a premise that wasn't incredibly promising to begin with.
Bell plays Beth, an ambitious, hard-working career woman unlucky in love, as if there's any other kind of heroine in movies these days. As curator for the Guggenheim, she has to land "THE BIG ACCOUNT" for her demanding boss, Celeste (Angelica Huston--why?)....or else. The timing couldn't be worse as she has to be at her younger sister Joan's wedding in Rome. That sister is played by Alexis Dziena, who after this, Fool's Gold and Nick Norah's Infinite Playlist, I'm convinced could be the most annoying supporting actress working today. Just her very presence may as well signal any film's journey to DVD within a month. At the wedding, Beth impulsively steals coins from a "fountain of love," belonging to smitten tourists aggressively pursuing (i.e. stalking) her upon her return to New York. There's Jon Heder as a street magician, Dax Shepard as a male model, Danny DeVito as a sausage impresario and Will Arnett as a struggling artist. But the only guy she's really interested in is Nick (Josh Duhamel), a former college football star and sports journalist she meets at the wedding. The big question is whether his feelings are real or he's also under the spell.
The fountain scene where the suitors are revealed is almost too clumsy to do justice in words, cutting between these goofy reaction shots from all the guys as they're put under the trance. It would have been much smarter to gradually introduce them throughout the film, but the writers think we can't figure out anything for ourselves so they instead come out swinging and clobber us over the head with the concept right away. More embarrassing though is that THEY DIDN'T CAST WILL ARNETT AS THE STREET MAGICIAN. Talk about not even trying. In addition to having Arnett reprise his Arrested Development role they should have just let Heder play Napoleon Dynamite (Pedro already makes an appearance anyway) and have Don Johnson, as Beth's dad, bust out the white suit and reprise his Miami Vice role. None of that could be any worse than what we get, which includes pointless cameos from the likes of Shaq and Lawrence Taylor (good timing there).
The movie contains two scenes that could qualify as mildly hilarious. The first involves the breaking of a vase at the wedding, which I laughed at during trailers and commercials, but plays even funnier when viewed in context. Another, involves Beth and Nick's date at a restaurant named "Blackout," where they dine in total darkness, complete with a hostess with night vision goggles. If only the rest of the film contained the ingenuity of those scenes. Of her stalkers, only "Sausage King" Al Russo entertains since it is humorous (and a little scary) seeing DeVito chase Kristen Bell down the street with a gift basket of sausage. Shepard's arrogant model is the worst, seemingly inspired by a Zoolander extra. The biggest surprise is Duhamel who was a lot better than I expected as the male lead, displaying a goofy charm that's right for the part and matches Bell nicely. He's as much a victim of the poor writing as she is.
Though Bell makes Beth believable as a driven museum curator, the idea of her as a dumped, lonely woman unlucky with men is preposterous, as is the notion they'd need a "spell" put on them to fall for her. That's why I wish screenwriters would come with a different kind of heroine for a change instead of continuously asking us to pity the rich, beautiful, ambitious career woman who "just can't find love." Doing this would also put an end to the clumsy workplace scenes we always seem to get in these romantic comedies, which are getting so ridiculous that "THE BIG ACCOUNT" is now indistinguishable from "THE BIG GAME" in sports movies. But what's most bizarre, and could have easily been a complete accident on the part of the filmmakers, the piece of art at the center of this "BIG ACCOUNT" actually justifies the hype surrounding it and you could easily picture it prominently hanging in a prestigious gallery. It's hilarious that they got nearly every important thing wrong in the movie, yet somehow managed to get that small detail right.
It's hard to chalk up any film with Bell as its lead as a complete loss since it's always a pleasure seeing her on screen. And as badly as the script misfires, at least this represents the kind of part she should be taking and plays to her strengths, unlike the bitchy supporting character she was saddled with in the slightly superior (but still really flawed) Forgetting Sarah Marshall. She should continue playing likable characters we can root for because that's her bread and butter, but she really needs to start making better choices in terms of how to do it. Big screen stardom for her won't come starring in projects written and directed by the visionary who made Grumpier Old Men and Ghost Rider. Expectations for date movies are understandably low since you're really just looking for a good time, but even by those meager standards, When in Rome still finds ways to disappoint.