Recently, when reviewing the abysmal The Bounty Hunter, I challenged readers to name the last great romantic comedy, and that challenge remains unanswered. Several other romantic comedies have been released in the interim, and – in what comes as a fairly substantial surprise – there have been a couple that aren’t all bad. Despite critical response that has bordered on savage, When in Rome can be added to the list of the not-so-apalling.
Kristin Bell is Beth, successful curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and elder sister to a young woman about to marry her new Italian beau.
When in Rome features supporting performances from a range of small- and even-smaller-name actors, particularly in the roles of the newly smitten coin-casters. Danny DeVito and Angelica Huston are probably the most successful of these co-stars, and both seem to relish their chances here. Will Arnett plays an Italian artist who chases Beth back to New York, Jon Heder a street performer who dreams of the big time, and Dax Shepard a male model more obsessed with Beth than his miraculous abs. All bring a sense of fun to the show, although Arnett seems underwhelmed by being here, and Heder’s turn seems too close to that in Just Like Heaven for comfort.
No one could argue that When in Rome features a strikingly intelligent script or a remarkable turn of events that will surprise anyone; however, the shocking thing about the film is its sense of comfortable familiarity for any fan of the romantic comedy genre. Writers of modern romcoms seem to have headed down the same toxic path en masse, producing films with obnoxious leads that no sane person could ever root for, let alone imagine happily paired off. Despite the poster suggesting a relationship with The Proposal (which featured a lead character so objectionable it would be stunning if anyone could feel anything positive towards her, let alone cheer for her success), the leads here are accessible and genuine characters. The result is a surprisingly engaging and effective romantic comedy, despite obvious problems with the script.
Director Mark Steven Johnson wisely allows his two lead actors to shine as brightly as possible, and it is their charm that allows the film to generate the good will it receives. Both are happy mining for physical comedy gold, and Bell in particular makes the most of her screen time. Duhamel has never particularly appealed, and yet he is charming in the lesser of the lead roles. Johnson also ensures he never lingers too long on any one sequence or theme, meaning that those that don’t work are soon forgotten as the audience is quickly carried forward. The overall running time of only 91 minutes feels like it flies by.
When in Rome is formulaic and at times borders on silly, and yet its adherence to (what seems like) a common sense principle of making its lead characters likeable means it is simply more fun than many recent films in the genre.