(by Dustin Putman
Tame, predictable and a little dull, "Letters to Juliet" at least gets points for its picturesque scenery. Director Gary Winick (2009's "Bride Wars") and cinematographer Marco Pontecorvo (2006's "Firewall"), taking advantage of their exotic locations, shoot the rustic villages and sun-dappled vineyards of Italy with loving care. Also very good: Amanda Seyfried (2010's "Dear John"), a young actress fast on the rise, and understandably so. Seyfried is not only a chameleon, able to play a wide range of roles—just take a look at her fascinating, diverse work in 2004's "Mean Girls," 2008's "Mamma Mia!," 2009's "Jennifer's Body," and 2010's "Chloe" for proof—but there is a soulfulness in her eyes that instantly brings depth and plausibility to even vaguely written roles. In "Letters to Juliet," she's stuck in a hokey romantic plot that offers leaps in logic about as frequently as it drowns in schmaltzy emotions. The love story is the least interesting part—much more thoughtful is Seyfried's character's individual journey in finding herself—but of course it's treated like the primary concern for all involved. Article continues below
Sophie Hall (Amanda Seyfried) is an ace fact-checker for The New Yorker whose real passion is to be a writer. When she travels to Verona, Italy, to vacation with her fiancé, budding restauranteur Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal), the two of them end up going their separate ways. For Sophie, that means coming upon Juliet Capulet's home and the letters written day in and day out to the centuries-old icon made famous by William Shakespeare. Sophie promptly joins the Secretaries of Juliet, whose job it is to write back to each letter, and ends up transforming the life of 65-year-old Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) when she discovers hidden behind a brick the long-forgotten note she wrote about lost love Lorenzo fifty years earlier. With her husband having passed away, Claire and grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan)—with Claire's new kindred spirit Sophie in tow—set out across Italy in hopes of tracking down her true love from decades' past.
Love-starved teenage girls of an undiscriminating type may well buy into the sappy riches of "Letters to Juliet." For everyone else, it's simply inoffensive malarkey with far-fetched flights of fancy. The road trip between Claire, Charlie and Sophie that takes up the middle act of the film is an attractive bore with a foregone conclusion for Claire. What cannot be guessed is how zonky and over-the-top her ultimate rekindling with Lorenzo (Franco Nero) will be; indeed, it's enough to make one question if it's really happening or a dream sequence. Less effective still is the burgeoning feelings between Sophie and Charlie, who of course spar with each other until they realize they're soul mates. The trouble is that their relationship is underdeveloped and no sparks ignite between them. By the time they kiss once and are convinced in their own minds that they love one another, the viewer simply does not believe it. It's all superficial shading and no substance.
There is a ten-minute section of "Letters to Juliet" better than the rest. Having returned from her transformative Italian trip, Sophie gains the courage to submit an article she has written to the magazine she works for, and mightily impresses her boss (Oliver Platt). Finally on her way to being the published writer she's always dreamed, Sophie breaks up with Victor in a touching scene that is so maturely handled and delicately written it is as if it has come from a different movie. That Victor is never portrayed as a bad guy is appreciative, and the truths she must tell him—that she loves who he is, but is no longer in love with him—ring with an honesty that her romance with Charlie never does. Alas, it's back down to mediocrity just in time for a climax that includes false crises with obvious outcomes and a declaration-of-love balcony scene that is enough to give a person's rolling eyes a workout.
Amanda Seyfried is lovely in "Letters to Juliet," exceeding the quality of the material while helping the proceedings to be a bit more palatable than they otherwise might have been. Her Sophie is an independent, kind, admirable heroine, and so the disappointment that comes from director Gary Winick's and screenwriters Jose Rivera's (2004's "The Motorcycle Diaries") and Tim Sullivan's (2006's "Flushed Away") treatment of her is that they assume she must instantly need a man to be happy. Since neither Victor nor Charlie feels like "the one," why not end the film with Sophie's personal success being the major victory and the hint of a blossoming relationship being the gravy? Instead, those two elements are swapped around and "Letters to Juliet" becomes just like pretty much every other film of its kind. Not surprising, but such a shame all the same.