Letters to Juliet isn’t a bad movie, but it isn’t exactly a good movie either. It is a romantic comedy that has moments of indisputable sweetness, but it’s so formulaic and empty headed that it never pushes past just being an average romantic comedy. Romantic comedy is a difficult genre and few movies – especially modern ones – really get it right. When Harry Met Sally, Arthur, and Moonstruck are only a few that I could think of off the top of my head (and notice how old they all are). I’m sure there are some decent ones from the past 10 years, but it hasn’t been a genre that I have diligently followed. The vast majority I’ve seen over the past several years have been plain awful. Letters to Juliet is refreshing only in that it isn’t terrible, just average.
The screenwriters, José Rivera and Tim Sullivan, (why they needed two to churn this out I’ll never know) follow a tried though not necessarily true romantic comedy movie blueprint. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is stuck in a dead end job as a fact checker for the New Yorker when she really wants to be a writer. She is engaged to a young chef (Gael García Bernal) who is busy putting the finishing touches on his true love, his restaurant due to open in a matter of weeks. They decide to take their honeymoon before their wedding because he will be so busy with the restaurant. (Why they don’t just have the wedding several weeks before or after the restaurant opening is never made clear. Who would plan a wedding to coincide with a restaurant opening? Bad wedding planning, but great plot manipulation.) They arrive in Verona where Victor (Bernal) spends all his time meeting suppliers and getting cooking lessons, leaving Sophie to wander the city alone. On one of her solo outings she discovers the Wall of Juliet, where forlorn and discarded lovers flock to leave letters for the fictional Juliet (of Romeo and Juliet fame). She also discovers a group of women who collect the letters and answer them.
Sophie joins up with the women, possibly with the idea of writing a story about them. Through pure luck she discovers a letter left by a woman in 1957 and she decides she has to answer it. Only a few days later the woman, Clair (Vanessa Redgrave) arrives in Verona looking for the lost love of her life. Tagging along with her is an overprotective grandson, Charlie (Christopher Egan). Over Charlie’s strenuous objections the three set out on a search for Claire’s lost love.
You could probably fill in the holes about what happens next without seeing the picture. I don’t even need to tell you that Sophie’s fiancé is cartoonishly self-absorbed, so the “choice” at the end is really false. And of course she and Charlie hate each other, but you know where that goes. Though the plot is sickeningly predictable, there is some real chemistry and sweetness between Seyfried and Egan (despite his grating sarcasm early on – I think a better actor could have really done something with those scenes rather than just sounding like a snob). And of course Vanessa Redgrave brings a wonderful elegance to everything she is in; all she has to do is show up and I’m already half in love with the scene.
Other than the paint-by-numbers script, the movie is undermined by a level of dopiness about love that should only appeal to 12 year old girls. Love is much more complex than this movie would have us believe. Love doesn’t mean “wanting to be together all the time,” as Seyfried’s character claims near the end of the picture. I’m in love, but I don’t want to be with him all the time. How about 85% of the time. Love doesn’t mean subjugating your own personality and wants and desires for another – which you would have to do if you followed the philosophy of love per Letters to Juliet. It is odd that we still have movies that tell us all you need is love. How many have fallen for this idea and ended up in miserable relationships? How often have we heard, “But I love him!” when women explain why they stay with abusive husbands or boyfriends. We need to be reminding people that love is great, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a great relationship. Falling in love is easy; staying in love and maintaining a healthy relationship is the hard part. This movie, like most romance movies, completely sugarcoats this reality. Remember Broadcast News? That was a strong romance that had the guts not to give us the ending and coupling we anticipated because love and romance are messier than the emotions we feel. I wish writers and filmmakers (and studios) would have the courage to make romance movies that explore this issue more fully. Young people – girls in particular – are fed this romantic nonsense and then we wonder why teenagers and young adults make so many rotten relationship decisions. This concern is nothing new. In 1752 Charlotte Lennox wrote about a young girl educated by romance novels and the misadventures that result from her readings in The Female Quixote. Jane Austen revisited the theme in 1818 with her posthumously published Northanger Abbey. Not much has changed since the days of Lennox or Austen, but we ought to advocate for stories that are less about feelings, which are the easy parts of a relationships, and are more about what makes a relationship truly special.