Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Letters to Franco

I wonder how many moviegoers know of the pleasure of seeing Franco Nero on top of a horse. The ruggedly handsome Italian movie star is famous for such action adventure films such as his spaghetti westerns Django (1966) and Keoma (1976) and his crime thrillers like High Crime (1973) and Street Law (1976). He also appeared in such regal Hollywood epics such as The Bible (1966) and Camelot (1967). He even played an evil drug lord in Die Hard 2 (1990). He is married to Vanessa Redgrave and together they share the screen in the new romantic chick flick Letters to Juliet, in theaters this Friday. The leading lady is Amanda Seyfried, who has made a name for herself acting in other gooey romantic outings such as the recent Dear John and the big musical showcase Mamma Mia!

Seyfried plays Sophia, an aspiring journalist who works as a fact checker for The New Yorker. Her fiance is a gregarious Mexican chef (Gael Garcia Bernal) who seems more in love with the various lengths and thickness of his noodles than his beautiful wife to be. They travel to Verona, Italy for a "pre-honeymoon" so he can check out some potential suppliers for his new restaurant. Uninterested in his passionate love for food and pretending to be an Italian, Seyfried decides to sightsee on her own and soon discovers a wall in the streets posted with letters asking for romantic help, sent to "Juliet", a kind of Italian version of Ann Landers I guess. She follows a woman who has taken all these letters to a house where a group of middle aged women sit together at a table and write responses to the romantic letters. Charmed by their work, Sophia decides to stay and write responses with them after she finds a lost letter hidden in a hole in the wall. Her response letter is found by Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) and her whiny, pessimistic grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan) who seem to have all the free time in the world to travel to Italy and magically find the source of the letter. Claire decides to travel all throughout the countryside with grandson and Sophia, with nothing better to do and her fiance busy with work, in tow to find Claire's lost love from her youth. The lost male lover in question is Lorenzo Bartolini (Franco Nero) but before they find him, the trio spend the entire film searching for him, only to discover along the way that Verona is filled with what seems like dozens of horny or lovelorn old Italian men with the same name. During the journey, Sophia and Charlie bicker and argue the way two good looking leads in a generic romance film do before they discover that the screenplay requires them to fall in love.

At the center of this is Redgrave, who has a charm and graceful dignity that you can see from many great actresses of her generation. Seyfried is a beauty who has much appeal and talent as an actress but what she needs are better leading men. Bernal and Egan both play petulant tools who are lucky enough to have a sweet, patient and gorgeous woman like Sophia spending time with them. It's not until Franco Nero finally enters the picture, fittingly on top of a white horse, do you get an idea of what a real romantic leading man should embody. Being a fan of Nero's, it's a shame to see him wasted in what essentially is a role serving as a point plot to the film instead of being a full realized character.

Letters to Juliet is a perfectly pleasant, predictable, paint by numbers movie that goes exactly in the direction you expect it go in. Characters meet in oddly convenient ways. Seyfried is able to take time off from The New Yorker, which would probably be a seven day a week, 16 hour a day job, to fly to and from Italy on a whim to solve her love woes.

Think of how interesting this movie could be if Nero's character was fully developed and came into the picture earlier. He has a magnetic screen presence whether as an action hero or sensitive romantic lead. At the age of 69, he has aged well and is still in great shape.

Men comfortable enough with their sexuality are willing to admit that Nero is a big slab of handsome. This movie needed more of him and since he is married to Redgrave in real life, their scenes together could have had the potential to be natural and believable, unlike the forced romance between Seyfried and Egan which I didn't buy for a second.

It wouldn't have hurt to see more of Franco on the horse either.

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