"Letters to Juliet" is an ode to romance of the most starry-eyed sort, a sugary paean to quixotic clichés and a film destined to be a guilty pleasure for some (me included, sigh) and the painful price of a relationship for others (so steel yourselves).
The starry eyes here belong to Amanda Seyfried, one of Hollywood's favorite ingénues now. But soon enough the movie morphs into a multigenerational romance-Italian road trip with Vanessa Redgrave, Christopher Egan and Franco Nero, to say nothing of certain members of the audience, bitten by the bug.
But love doesn't guarantee happy endings, particularly when the tale is tied to Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and the Verona balcony wherefore the star-crossed lovers he conjured up once cooed. In the years since the Bard wrote, the broken-hearted began making pilgrimages there, tucking lovelorn letters into the wall below with "Juliet's secretaries," a local cohort of sympathetic souls, answering each one.
This is where Seyfried's Sophie finds herself — a hopeless romantic under the spell of that balcony and moved by all those remnants of desire left behind. After discovering a 50-year-old missive from a Londoner named Claire (Redgrave) who wonders if she was right to leave her Italian lover, Sophie sets about to pen the answer herself.
That Sophie is a fact-checker at the New Yorker with dreams of becoming a writer is beside the point (just as her fiancé, Victor, played Gael García Bernal, is but a rock on the rocky road of love). But nevertheless the point is made many times over, this being a Gary Winick movie.
The director, who staged last year's wedding dress smackdown " Bride Wars," is not shy about milking moments. In "Letters," much of the milking takes place on balconies; I stopped counting at three. Screenwriters Jose Rivera ("The Motorcycle Diaries") and Tim Sullivan don't help things by piling on more saccharine than substance and some truly groan inducing lines that severely test this appealing cast's appeal.
Because the film is operating on movie time, not real time as anyone who has ever mailed a postcard from Italy knows, this is what happens in the same week that Sophie replies to Claire's letter: It is delivered in London to Claire, who reads it and immediately comes to Verona with her handsome but grating grandson, Charlie (Egan), who tracks down, then dresses down Sophie, who follows him and meets Claire, who invites Sophie to dinner. Sophie asks if she can tag along as Claire and Charlie search Tuscany for the long-lost Lorenzo, who happens to have a very common name, and that's far from the end of the story.
Softening all the low blows is the presence of Redgrave and the warmth of the Tuscan sun. Between them, they should melt the most resistant heart as Claire, Sophie and Charlie meander through the lush, languid countryside with its rolling vineyards and rustic villages. Cinematographer Marco Pontecorvo ( "My One and Only") has bathed everything in a golden glow that Redgrave floats through, luminous still, limpid blue eyes, cheekbones ever at the ready, absorbing whatever the day hands her, which is usually a glass of wine and another Lorenzo. Just not the right Lorenzo.
Seyfried and Egan are more charming when they are with her as they spar and deny the sparks that fly around them — she is engaged to Victor after all. But the time Redgrave spends on screen with Nero, her longtime partner in real life, is so infused with a slow-burning fire it could make a cynic, or a critic, waver, so I will. Besides, love means never having to say you're sorry, so I won't.
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