MOVIE REVIEW: Letters to Juliet

LETTERS TO JULIET-- 2 STARS

The summer movie season is typically reserved for action, special effects, and spectacle, but most movie studios are wise enough to offer some romantic "counter-programming" for the ladies and older adults. Whether it's The Proposal last year or Sex in the City 2 coming later this week, or even further back to The Notebook in 2004 or My Best Friend's Wedding in 1997, there's always at least one romantic film that hits big with audiences and steals some thunder from the franchises and comic book films. If you're looking for this year's thunder thief, so to speak, you're going to have to wait for Thursday and the former HBO gold-digging cougars, because Letters to Juliet is not it.

The film surrounds a young aspiring writer Sophie (Amanda Seyfried of Dear John), languishing as a fact-finder for "The New Yorker," who takes an implausible pre-wedding "pre-honeymoon" trip with her fiance (an out-of-place Gael Garcia Bernal) to Verona, Italy.  There, while her fiance ignores her to tend to his restaurant business dealings, she discovers the house where Juliet Capulet of Shakespeare fame was rumored to live.  People come from worlds around to visit the courtyard and balcony to leave longing letters and notes to lost and unrequited loves, much like coins in a wishing well.  The inquisitive Sophie discovers that an encouraging group of local women act as "secretaries" to the letters left there and write reply letters back to those who left notes for Juliet.  Sophie herself finds an unanswered 50+ year old letter from a Claire Smith from England to a local Lorenzo Bartolini behind a loose brick in the wall.  Sophie feels obligated to get in on the secretary act and writes a reply to Claire.

Low and behold a few days later, the now-older Claire (British great Vanessa Redgrave) receives the reply letter and comes to Verona to seek out Sophie and the secretaries of Juliet.  She is accompanied by her cad of a grandson Charlie (Chris Egan of the shortly-lived NBC show "Kings" from last year).  Claire, with Sophie's help and Charlie's cynical eye, sets herself on a quest to find her Lorenzo Bartolini to see if true love can be timeless for them.

Scene after scene of cliched mistaken identity meetings ensue, all while Claire keeps up hope and the younger Sophie and Charlie question on their own what makes them tick in the true love department. The extremely renowned young Mexican actor, Gael Garcia Bernal, known for his award-worthy lead roles in Yi tu Mama Tambien, The Motorcycle Diaries, Babel, and El Crimen del padre Amaro, has his talent wasted in a bumbling boyfriend supporting role.  The normally charismatic Chris Egan gets has nothing to do but dress well and act like a British prick.  By the time a Dos Equis "Most Interesting Man in the World" lookalike (Vanessa Redgrave's real-life husband Franco Nero) and the background noise of Taylor Swift's "Love Story" show up (and come on, you knew it would), extreme Hollywood predictability sets in.

What I noticed the most while watching Letters to Juliet, beyond the yawns I shared with my girlfriend over the predictability, is the dichotomy of the roles women get in Hollywood because of their age. The young and the old sides of that coin are both represented here, in the young and perky Amanda Seyfried and the luminous classic that is Vanessa Redgrave.  For years, the trend has been that, unless you're Meryl Streep, young and hot trumps old age from getting parts. 

The young half of the dichotomy is Amanda Seyfried, the very vision of young and hot here in 2010.  Seyfried first hit with audiences as one of the ditzy members of the Mean Girls, the underrated Tina Fey-written Lindsey Lohan teen acceptance film.  She is just coming off the daring independent film Chloe and the Nicolas Spark adaptation Dear John.  You can tell from the marketing of the film and her recent success that Hollywood is trying to prop her up as the latest in a long line of "It Girls" trying to become the next Julia Roberts. Ever since Julia hit the scene at age 21 in Pretty Woman, Hollywood's been trying to duplicate her megawatt success in other young women ever since.

The list is long and mostly forgettable.  Sure, every now and then you get a single big financial success from the likes of a Rachel McAdams inThe Notebook or an Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada or a hopeless Cameron Diaz or Kate Hudson attempt that put them in the spotlight.  I ask, though, who, other than Sandra Bullock maybe (and even she's had her lean years), has succeeded with the longevity or bankability that Roberts (or Bullock) has?

None have, which means Hollywood needs to stop trying, because Pretty Woman turns 20 years old this year.  Even when the "It Girl" goes indy like Ellen Page in Juno, it turns into Whip It the next time out, and I think it's safe to say Kristen Stewart from the Twilight series is far from "It Girl" status.  I've come to the realization that pretty faces are a dime-a-dozen and classics are hard to find.

Which brings us to the older half of the dichotomy of women from Letters to Juliet, the absolutely luminous Vanessa Redgrave.  Redgrave is the only British actress to have won the Oscar, Emmy, Tony, Cannes, Golden Globe, and Screen Actors Guild awards.  She's a classic actress in the way where she not only performs convincingly every single moment, no matter how small the moment, but carries a screen presence that the young and hot of today cannot even come close too.

Vanessa Redgrave is the best reason to watch this movie and the picturesque Italian locales are a strong, but distant second.  Her performance alone gives Letter to Juliet one of its stars to keep it from being a one-star film.  Granted, it doesn't take much next to Seyfried's "awesomes" and "OMGs," but I mean it when I say she makes every scene she's in look meaningful and special.  If you don't believe me, watch her sell anguish and regret in the last ten minutes of 2007's Atonement (her only screen time in the movie) and you'll know what I'm talking about.  Her Claire's longing looks linger and melt you.  Her fear and anxiety grab you.  She makes you believe what her character believes: that true love doesn't dwindle away with age.  It's that very notion that leads me to the movie lessons!

LESSON #1: TRUE LOVE IS TIMELESS AND DOES NOT AGE-- Vanessa Redgrave and her real-life husband Franco Nero play two people separated by over 50 years after their teenage relationship wasn't approved by their parents.  They grew up, married, had children, and lived their own lives, but never forgot the attraction and love that brought them together so many years before.  It may sound like something that only happens in the movie, but ask any married couple that's been together for 20 or more years and they may tell you the same lesson and fortune.  There's nothing wrong with never letting love go and always caring that hope that one day it will blossom or come your way.

LESSON #2: DON'T LEAVE YOUR FEELINGS UNSAID AND TAKE CHANCES ON LOVE-- Like so many other romantic films, comedy or drama, Letters to Juliet has moments where people either take a chance on love or suffer the consequences of watching those moments pass them by.  Most of the time, all the characters need to do is get the courage to open their mouths and say how they truly feel (which, of course, for dramatic and movie purpose, they don't).  There's always a "woulda-coulda-shoulda" section to these movies, with letters stuffed in walls as the modus operandi here.  Life echoes this too.  We've all written a love letter and maybe even a few we never delivered that we should have.   We've all had times where we didn't tell someone we loved them when we should have.