Rome-Antic Comedy makes for a very special subset of myÂ favorite, much- eleaguered genre. Rome Is Where The Heart Is. Isnâ€™t ItÂ Rome-antic? With Valentineâ€™s Day and all ofÂ its attendant delights and disappointments lurking only weeks away, weâ€™re in theÂ mood for love.Â (I employ the royal we, signifying myself.)
Filmmakers use European capitals Rome and Paris to goose romance; both cities boast plenty of fabled fountains, fantastic food, familiar
landmarks, and first-rate (or at least first-run) films. â€œWhen In Rome,â€ the
first-run comedy in consideration here, goes head to head with heavyweight
â€œRoman Holiday.â€ Even though the outcome is hardly an open question, letâ€™s put
Touchstoneâ€™s little David in the ring with Goliath and see what happens next.
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Featuring precious little Rome and a lot of Antic, â€œWhen InÂ Romeâ€ falls back on every exhausted (and exhausting) rom-com convention in theÂ book. In Rome for her sister’s wedding, a career woman cynically steals coins from a fountain and unknowingly makes five strangers fall madly in love with her. Kristen Bell makes for an adorable lead who needs fresher and smarterÂ material to reach her full rom- om heroine potential. Josh Duhamel stands tall asÂ her love object, slightly less generic than the usual rom-com Ken doll. Thereâ€™sÂ not much standing in their way, no real obstacles, and therein lies the rub.Â The two meet semi-cute in the first ten minutes, and we know theyâ€™ll wind upÂ together; nothing much happens in the middle to call their happy ending intoÂ question. Thereâ€™s much ado about the nothing; pilfered coins, local legend, andÂ enchanted suitors sound like more fun than they are.
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The Defending Champion
Romantic comedies don’t often garner ten Academy Award nominations, let alone win three. But then, most comedies don’t feature Audrey Hepburn in her first American film. William Wyler helms this classic fairy tale shot entirely onÂ location in Rome. Hepburn brings her uniquely royal bearing to the roleÂ of a runaway rebel princess who meets her Prince Charming (Gregory Peck) andÂ spends a romantic and scandalous night and day exploring what it might be likeÂ to travel incognito. Rome is glorious in black and white, and their chemistryÂ together is undeniable.
Peck plays Joe, a journalist with a truly funny sidekick,Â photographer Irving (Eddie Albert) who recognizes the princess and playsÂ paparazzi. Hepburn and Peck are gorgeous together — impossibly slim and stillÂ classically stylish. Their romance is utterly convincing, and the twin themesÂ of fame and privacy are timeless.
(For those of you unfortunates whoâ€™ve not seen the film,
Iâ€™ll spare you spoilers as much as I humanly can. Promise me that youâ€™ll open
up another browser window and add it to your Netflix queue this instant or hie
thee to a Blockbuster at your earliest opportunity.)
Four comic actors of some renown flail around desperately inÂ their â€œeccentricâ€ enchanted suitor characters, scraping for laughs and broadÂ comedy; Danny DeVito, Will Arnett, Jon Heder, and Dax Shepard have rarely beenÂ so ill-used. Their clown car chases, pratfalls, sausage jokes, public nudity,Â and magic tricks fail to ignite the festivities, and their heart-tuggingÂ â€œWizard-of-Ozâ€ referencing farewells fall equally flat.Â Don Johnson and Peggy Lipton look great as Bellâ€™s parents in roles reduced to glorified cameos.Â Anjelica Huston runsÂ Manhattanâ€™s Guggenheim Museum and bosses Bell around; youâ€™d have to look longÂ and hard to find a less convincing workplace. Amazingly, the filmmakers shot onÂ location in the actual museum; one hopes Touchstone paid the cultural landmark a tidy enough sum toÂ cover the institution’s shame-spiraling loss of credibility. Â Both romantic leads have â€œfunnyâ€ workplace friends,Â unattractive underlings (Kate Micucci and Bobby Moynihan) who appear in their homeÂ lives and apartments oftener than most real world co-workers might. NeitherÂ second has any life of his/her own; the screenplay resolutely (and foolishly)Â efuses to allow the foils to even meet. The eunuch and the dowdy maiden might have,Â in Shakespeareâ€™s day, Â found love with a counterpart, the equal (if lesser) match.Â “Roman Holiday” Â won Academy awards or Best Actress Audrey Hepburn, Best Original Story (awardedÂ to then blacklisted) Dalton Trumbo and another for the ubiquitous Costume designer Edith Head. Its Â other seven nominations included: Best Picture, BestÂ Supporting Actor (Eddie Albert), Best Director, Best Screenplay (Ian McClellanÂ Hunter and John Dighton), Best Black & White Cinematography, Best BlackÂ & White Art Direction/Set Decoration, and Best Film Editing. So. In 1953,Â â€œRoman Holidayâ€ worked its magic just fine.Â In the old days, filmmakers didnâ€™t always lean on formulas.
Perhaps because they were still inventing the formulas, happy endings werenâ€™tÂ always insured; audience expectations and responses were perhaps less tested,Â less Pavlovian.Â â€œRoman Holidayâ€Â works so well over half a century later because its happy ending remains aÂ question mark until the filmâ€™s final frame. The impediments to their romantic relationship are huge; theÂ issues raised are equally monumental and universal. This is no lightweightÂ rom-com; the arguments made are not didactic in the least. Both the princessÂ and the tabloid journalist grapple with dilemmas that are far from fantastical.Â his is an adult film featuring adults making crucial, difficult decisions; Â fulfilling their obligations fully would fly directly in the face of theÂ pursuit of their personal happiness.Â â€œWhen In omeâ€ grapples for a few moments with the notion that love must be real, not an enchantment. This isnâ€™t much of a real moralÂ dilemma; after all, Bethâ€™s sister marries a man she has just met. Is not loveÂ at first sight enchantment without the bogus magical explanation? The nature ofÂ love is bandied about throughout the film; truisms spout thick and fast likeÂ greeting card sentiments. Love is something one must be open to. Love isÂ something that makes you want to help the beloved achieve their dream. Blah blah blah.
“Roman Holiday.” Duh.Â Of course, â€œRoman Holidayâ€ wins this (and almost any other) Smackdown. And yes, IÂ could have selected a crummier rom-com and stacked the critical deck in anyÂ direction. But hereâ€™s the thing. I have a point to make. The truly greatÂ romantic comedies do not follow formulas. The truly great romantic comedies are about much more than meeting cute and ending Â at some altar. The truly great romanticÂ comedies touch our hearts and genuinely move us. One has to ask whatâ€™s gone soÂ dreadfully wrong with the system that the rom-coms we get are so much less thanÂ the rom-coms we want. Enough with the sausage factory. Kristen Bell may not beÂ Audrey Hepburn, but she, and we, deserve far better than this.