Letters to Juliet

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The people who write the letters to Juliet in “Letters to Juliet” are lovelorn women who seek the fictional dead teenager’s counsel. Never mind that she is fictional, and dead, and a teenager. They don’t really expect a response anyway. They just want to pour their hearts out.

Apparently people really do send notes to Juliet in Verona, Italy, and apparently many of those notes really are answered by a squad of volunteers known as Juliet’s secretaries. Those aspects of “Letters to Juliet” are based in reality. All the film’s other aspects are based in Hollywood fantasy and teen-girl wish-fulfillment, with very little personality.

Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), a budding writer, is in Verona with her fiance, Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal), who’s about to open a restaurant back home in New York. They’re here partly as a pre-honeymoon, and partly so Victor can meet with suppliers. This seems like a reasonable arrangement, but the movie still wants us to be upset with Victor when he spends a lot of time meeting with suppliers. That is also the movie’s cue that Victor is WRONG for Sophie, lest there be any confusion or tension when she meets someone else.

The someone else she meets is Charlie (Christopher Egan), a stuffy young British man who arrives in Verona fumin’ mad at Sophie. You see, Sophie found the tourist spot where people leave letters for Juliet, then discovered the small band of ladies who write replies to the letters that have return addresses. Then Sophie found a 50-year-old letter stuck between some bricks in the Juliet wall, was deputized as an official Segretaria de Giulietta, and wrote a reply to the young woman — who is now a very old woman — telling her it’s never too late to follow your heart. The old woman, Claire (Vanessa Redgrave), who still lives at the same London address she had a half-century ago, has thus come to Verona to find the love she lost as a teenager. Charlie is her grandson, and he’s annoyed that Sophie — an American girl who says words like “awesome,” no less! — had the gall to send his gran on what he’s sure will be a wild-goose chase. All this “true love” nonsense is poppycock anyway! Poppycock and balderdash!

Sophie didn’t know Claire was going to drop everything and come to Italy, of course. She didn’t even know if Claire would get the letter. She certainly didn’t suspect the letter would arrive two days after she sent it, and that Claire and Charlie would be in Verona the very next day. The guy Claire is looking for — an Italian hunk named Lorenzo whom she met in the summer of 1957 — wasn’t even from Verona, so I don’t know why Claire showed up here.

For that matter, I don’t know why she showed up at all. Why now, after all this time? It’s not like she got a letter from Lorenzo. She got a letter from a stranger, acting as secretary for a fictional 16th-century character, telling her to follow her heart. Claire is alarmingly receptive to the power of suggestion.

Anyway, the husband she married instead of Lorenzo has long since died, leaving her free to drag her grandson on a trip to Italy, where she intends to scour the countryside looking for the right Lorenzo. And since Sophie’s fiance is busy WORKING (HE’S SO WRONG FOR HER!!), she has time to join the two. Claire is delighted to have the assistance of sweet young Sophie; Charlie is surly and brusque. Humbug! Folderol!

You may have gathered that I object to the alleged friction between Sophie and Charlie. I have used sarcasm to convey this point. It is necessary, in a film like this, for the attractive young male and female leads to be at odds with each other at the start, so that they can warm up to each other over time. Good screenwriters find natural, believable reasons for the two to clash. Lazy screenwriters — and this screenplay, by Jose Rivera (“The Motorcycle Diaires”) and Tim Sullivan, is exceedingly lazy — give up trying to think of an organic conflict and basically say, “Well, they dislike each other just because.” Charlie’s objections to Sophie are petty, like he’s grasping at straws. He thinks she’s too casual, too unsophisticated? That’s it? Their bickering is humorless and pointless.

The Italian scenery is awfully beautiful, and Vanessa Redgrave is a welcome addition to nearly anything. But director Gary Winick — who in seven years fell from indie gem “Tadpole” to studio monstrosity “Bride Wars” — is sleepwalking through this one, and who can blame him? Everything about the story suggests bland, watered-down pap. Why knock yourself out?

C- (1 hr., 33 min.; PG, a little mild profanity.)

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