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It all starts with the script. This basic maxim of moviemaking continues to elude legions of Hollywood players, and the latest demonstration of the impossibility of making a good movie from a bad script is provided by “When in Rome,” a romantic comedy approved by the previous regime at Disney.
The movie has two attractive stars, a talented supporting cast and handsome photography of Rome and New York by veteran cinematographer John Bailey, but nothing can salvage a script this lame. Anyone who hopes the film might be a latter-day companion piece to “Three Coins in the Fountain,” an Oscar nominee for best picture in 1954, will be disillusioned within the first five minutes. This doesn’t even measure up to “Rome Adventure,” a Troy Donahue-Suzanne Pleshette trifle from 1962. A few young girls might show up during the first weekend, but the movie is unlikely to last until Valentine’s Day.
Screenwriters David Diamond and David Weissman begin with a flimsy premise: When lovelorn museum curator Beth (Kristen Bell) travels to Rome for her sister’s wedding, she gets drunk and wanders into the (fictitious) Fountain of Love and picks up a few coins from the water. Through some magical spell, the five men who dropped the coins fall madly in love with her, and they all manage to find her when she returns to New York. The only one who interests her is a strapping reporter (Josh Duhamel), but she has to decide whether his love is genuine while she fights off the other four suitors. Anyone in suspense over the outcome probably never has seen a movie.
Romantic comedies have survived equally silly premises, but they had breezy dialogue, clever plot complications and appealing characters. None of those qualities is in evidence here. Director Mark Steven Johnson (“Simon Birch,” “Daredevil”) tries to embellish the hollow script with pratfalls that are no more amusing than the hamfisted dialogue.
Bell is stuck playing in overdrive for much of the movie; Duhamel manages to exhibit low-key charm even when he’s bumping into trees for no good reason. The actors playing the other suitors — Jon Heder, Will Arnett, Dax Shepard and Danny DeVito — are reduced to mugging outrageously. Anjelica Huston as Beth’s imperious boss seems to be trying to channel Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada,” which might have worked if she had any witty lines.
Because only a few scenes were shot in Rome, the film doesn’t even get to take advantage of the location. One curiosity is that Don Johnson, who plays Beth’s philandering father, receives no credit in the film. He might be the luckiest person associated with this misbegotten production.
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