You’ll fall in love with ‘Letters to Juliet’ schmaltz

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, May 13, 2010 1:58pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Well-crafted schmaltz is still schmaltz, so it may seem like splitting hairs to commend a movie for being hokey. But commend “Letters to Juliet” we must, for this film achieves everything it sets out to do.

Its goals are to hit the various buttons of the c-f genre, which you might know as chick flicks. Lost love, regret, European travel, food, charming young foreign actors — everything is checked off the list.

The European stop this time is Verona, Italy, where a place called Juliet’s Wall (inspired by Shakespeare) is used by tourists to leave notes on the subject of love. This massive display of public littering is endorsed, the movie tells us, by a team of Veronese city employees who sit around answering each letter.

This is how American Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) finds herself responding to a 50-year-old letter, whose British writer just happens to be alive and still curious about what happened to the Italian man she left behind all those years before.

Sophie’s in Verona with her fiance (Gael Garcia Bernal, very amusing), who is easily distracted and not interested in accompanying her on her subsequent adventure. The now-elderly author of the love note is Claire (Vanessa Redgrave), who has eagerly come to Italy with her suspiciously available grandson (Christopher Egan) in response to Sophie’s tender reply.

How can Sophie resist inviting herself along on their search for the long-lost Italian lover, especially as she’s casting about for a story idea for the New Yorker?

Hmm, recalling the plot is making me like the movie less. But if you can swallow the concept, “Letters to Juliet” does create a pleasant, sunny mood, which de-emphasizes slapstick in favor of a mellow road trip in gorgeous locations.

Part of this has to do with the peculiar, slightly spooky quality of Amanda Seyfried (late of “Mamma Mia!” and the weepy “Dear John”), a serious presence who frequently seems to be in the middle of her own daydream rather than interacting in scenes with her fellow actors. Her absence of humor makes the movie a different experience from what it would have been with Anne Hathaway or Jennifer Garner, say.

Having cast Vanessa Redgrave as Claire, however, maybe director Gary Winick (returning to form after the poor “Bride Wars”) recognized that a fluffy actress would not be able to hold the screen with Redgrave. Even when she’s being ethereal and romantic, as she is here, Redgrave is so commanding she can blow away lesser performers.

Co-star Franco Nero, by the way, appeared opposite Redgrave in 1967’s “Camelot,” had a child with her then, and, after many years apart, married her in 2006. That story sounds as though it came right out of the movie plot.

“Letters to Juliet” goes on a little long and works out all its issues in a slick, processed way, but I have to admit it’s a well-crafted piece.

The city of Verona can expect a massive uptick in visits from impressionable young women — and probably anybody else who sees this movie.

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