When in Rome is an almost cartoonishly silly, romantic comedy that wants desperately to be something more. It tries for moments for real significance, moments of introspection, moments of magical clarity which speak to women on the subject of romance. Those almost never work, and when they don’t, for no particular reason, it gives us Napoleon Dynamite and Pedro cracking wise together in a corner, or it crams the entire cast in a ridiculously tiny car. The pieces don’t always fit together, but it’s not for lack of effort. When in Rome is a movie that tries, and tries hard. It’s determined that every single frame of the film should be packed with some sort of entertainment. It may fall apart in the end, but this is a movie that won’t let its audience get bored.
It stars Kristen Bell as another one of those plucky career girls with no time for love. You know the type, women who are all about their jobs and desperately want to be taken seriously, yet have never considered wearing anything other than 6-inch stiletto heels. Beth is a character in the Carrie Bradshaw mold and she’s just as out of luck when it comes to men. We’re introduced to her in a bizarre sequence at the opening of an art exhibit she curates. This scene, tonally at least, bears no resemblance to the rest of the film and probably could have been left out entirely. Nothing in the movie really matters until Beth goes to Rome for her sister’s wedding. There she meets a cute man, becomes frustrated, and jumps into a legendary Italian fountain which is supposed to have the power to help the loveless find love. Men drop their coins in the water, hoping that their wish for companionship will be granted. Beth decides to steal their coins, as part of some drunken prank on the cosmos, only to discover later that the men whose coins she stole are now desperately in love with her.
Beth’s magically compelled suitors are a motley collection of weirdos, ranging from the underutilized Danny DeVito as a wealthy sausage king, to the overly shirtless Dax Shepherd as a self-obsessed, wannabe model. There’s comedy in watching them stalk her, and Kristen Bell simply tries to stay out of the way. But the real success of the film is Josh Duhamel as Nick, the obligatory perfect guy. Except he’s not perfect. He’s awkward and clumsy, and while incredibly good looking not so good looking that men in the audience will wish him dead. Duhamel’s performance is pitch perfect, an attractive blend of charisma, charm, and spot on comedic timing. He steals every scene he’s in, even the ones where Kristen Bell seems composed mostly of cleavage.
Much as I want to embrace Bell as the next big thing, here she comes off as kind of a dead end. Like the movie she tries hard, this isn’t a lack of effort on her part, but it’s as if some vital component is missing. It’s as if when you look into her eyes she’s thinking about where she’s supposed to stand in the next scene. That’s camouflaged by Duhamel, who’s so great he’d have chemistry with a rock if someone painted lipstick on it and put it in front of him, but it’s hard not to notice that there’s something off in Kristen’s performance. Maybe like the movie itself, she’s just trying too hard.
When in Rome tries so hard that at some point it loses itself. It can’t decide whether it wants to be taken seriously or whether it’s a Looney Tunes parody of Sex and the City. It’s disjointed and strange, but in a genre where so many movies are content to pander to lowest common denominator romance retreads, it’s hard not to embrace it simply for making the effort When in Rome is kind of a mess, but a well meaning mess.