By Don Simpson | May 14, 2010
Director: Gary Winick
Writers: Jose Rivera, Tim Sullivan
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Chris Egan, Vanessa Redgrave, Gael García Bernal, Franco Nero
We meet Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) – a fact-checker for the New Yorker – as she attempts to track down a first-person witness of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s iconic photograph of an American sailor kissing a young woman in a white dress on V-J Day in Times Square on August 14, 1945. The scene seems rather pointless as it plays out, but we discover that this is quite purposeful foreshadowing once Sophie joins Claire’s (Vanessa Redgrave) blind quest to track down a former lover. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Sophie is engaged to a food-obsessed chef – Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal) – who will soon be opening his very own Italian restaurant in New York City. Knowing that the restaurant opening will be hectic and distracting, Sophie and Victor embark on a pre-wedding vacation to Verona, Italy (the setting of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet). Once they arrive, the couple quickly discovers that they have very different intentions for this vacation – Sophie’s is strictly romantic and Victor’s is strictly business – so they opt to go their separate ways. Victor ventures out to tour Italy’s finest wineries and cheese cellars; Sophie finds herself alongside the “secretaries of Juliet” responding to notes left for Juliet Capulet (in the courtyard of Juliet’s infamous balcony) pleading for romantic guidance.
Sophie discovers a 50-year old note written by Claire, a British woman who had left her first [and one true] love Lorenzo and wanted to know Juliet’s opinion on the matter. Sophie responds and – since Brits are ones to stay put in their family homes – the letter finds its way to the seventy-something Claire. Within days, Claire and her grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan) arrive in Verona prepared to embark on a wild-goose chase across Italy in search of Lorenzo. As I mentioned earlier, the early bit of foreshadowing confirms that Sophie is dutifully qualified for leading this quest, much to the dismay of Charlie – a wet blanket who would rather throw in the towel before they even begin.
Charlie immediately pegs Claire as just another stupid American who effortlessly uses “oh my God” and “awesome” in the same sentence, while Claire pegs Charlie as just another elitist Oxford prig. While the trio bounce across Italy from one Lorenzo to the next – all of whom want to be Claire’s past lover, but none of them truly are – Claire and Charlie continuously bicker and snap at each other like siblings stuck on a family road trip together.
Throughout the film, we are provided with so much justification for Sophie’s gaze to wander from Victor – who it turns out is a self-obsessed asshole who only cares about food and never listens to Sophie. Most importantly, Sophie does not have an engagement ring – which, as it turns out, is a major red flag that something is rotten in Denmark. Victor – an exaggerated caricature of the stereotypical bad boyfriend (though there are no signs that he is unfaithful) – is totally oblivious to any wrong-doing. In Victor’s eyes, their relationship is just hunky-dory…
It is all too obvious from the very moment they meet that Sophie and Charlie will eventually “fall in love” – but boy does that take forever to actually happen – and this wouldn’t be a Hollywood chick-flick if Claire didn’t find (and marry) her Lorenzo. Letters to Juliet is as formulaic and unimaginative as chick-flicks come; but its greatest fault is its overtly sterile approach to “romance”…if you can even call it “romance.” We rarely witness Sophie kiss – or even touch – either Victor or Charlie. (While watching Letters to Juliet it seems utterly implausible, even impossible, that Seyfried just starred as a seductress in Atom Egoyan’s Chloe.)
As we should have learned from the opening title sequence (and the reference to Eisenstaedt’s 1945 photograph), Letters to Juliet is about the meaningfulness and purity of a single (and the first?) kiss. It is as if kisses lose their meaning each time you experience one. I can only assume what director Gary Winick’s opinion of pre-marital sex is – the characters in Letters to Juliet are as asexual as characters come.
Letters to Juliet seems obsessed by the notions of “true love” and “destiny”; yet I have to question the use of both terms in this film. From what we learn about Claire and Lorenzo and witness firsthand between Sophie and Charlie, I would never classify either relationship as “true love” – but I concede that statement as merely my opinion (I truly believe that everyone has different interpretations and opinions of what “love” and “true love” really mean). However, I think using “destiny” to describe any occurrence in this film is a huge leap – is Claire and Lorenzo’s reunion truly “destiny” if Claire drove around Italy interviewing countless Lorenzo’s in order to track him down? As for Sophie and Charlie – I cannot even believe that they “like” each other let along “love” each other, so I certainly cannot believe that their relationship is “destiny.” All I can believe is that Letters to Juliet was destined to be mindless Hollywood schlock albeit with a very talented, but evidently neutered, cast….and that destiny was truly fulfilled.