It’s not so much watching the really awful movies—your Transformers, your G.I. Joes, your Saws of the world—that are the real downside of reviewing films. No, those movies are at least awful enough to make one indignant. The ones I really can’t stand, the ones that make me want to pry my eyes out with a melon baller, are the forgettable mediocre films that fill up the bulk of cinema screens. They’re not quite awful enough to be interesting and nowhere near good enough to be memorable even a month after viewing.
Mark Steven Johnson’s When in Rome is exhibit A: good enough leads, nary a funny moment outside of a couple chuckles, all wrapped in your standard romcom formula. This isn’t to say the movie doesn’t try to be perfectly awful with a certain amount of gusto (I mean, c’mon, Jon Heder is in it), but the best When in Rome can ever manage is the spectacularly humdrum.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Single professional female Beth (Kristen Bell) meets hunky Nick (Josh Duhamel) in the quaintest of ways. Complications pop up, and Beth becomes weary of Nick, but a reel or two later she warms up to his manly charms and falls for him. Other, more significant complications crop up later, all of which are resolved in time for the big romantic climax of the film.
It’s a paint-by-numbers romantic comedy and the cinematic equivalent of being in a vegetative state. Because of this, writers David Diamond and David Weismann—the luminous scribes behind Old Dogs (2009) and Evolution (2001)—have added a heavy dose of the old high concept. Since a small bit of the film takes place in Rome, Beth, who is already jaded about love, takes some coins out of a fountain dedicated to hopeful lovers, which—due to some unbeknownst curse—causes their original owners to fall inexplicably in love with her. While this is an obvious problem for Beth, threatening both her career and her sanity, it’s even worse for the audience, since the men after her—and the ones we get stuck watching—include Heder as a street magician, Will Arnett (G-Force) affecting a really bad Italian accent and Dax Shepard (Baby Mama) taking his shirt off repeatedly.
There’s an underlying strangeness to a lot of the humor, but that’s no surprise since director Johnson made the interminably goofy Ghost Rider (2007). But where that film’s bizarreness was kind of enjoyable (ah, the wonders of a martini glass full of M&Ms and Nicolas Cage’s overacting), here it just feels like it’s trying too hard. Of course, when one of your big draws is a reunion of Heder and that guy who played Pedro (Efren Ramirez) in Napoleon Dynamite (2004), you’re already fighting an uphill battle. The pity is that Bell and Duhamel are much better than the film that houses them. Both of them are likable and have a certain amount of chemistry. While it isn’t much, it’s enough to hold the film together, instead of completely crumbling like the film has every right to do. Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content.