In theory, the heightened, simple worlds of romantic comedies are meant to let viewers escape into reassuring fantasies, pretending for 90 minutes or so that the world is a charming place where even the bitterest enemies can become devoted lovers, the perfect match is right around the corner, and almost everyone deserves a happy ending. To this end, rom-coms tend to leave anything resembling realism far, far behind. But even the most ardently romantic suspender of disbelief is going to have a hard time successfully escaping into the preposterously awful world of When In Rome. It’s a place where all the situations, characters, and dialogue are drawn so broadly, the script must have been written with a paint roller.
Kristen Bell stars as a career-focused, loveless museum curator who’s suddenly beset by swooning, smitten men after she swipes the coins they each threw into an enchanted fountain in Rome. There’s no magical realism to this gimmick, just emphatic magic, which drives four of Bell’s would-be suitors (Will Arnett, Jon Heder, Dax Shepard, and Danny DeVito) to crazed acts of caricatured mugging as they chase her around New York City. To aid in the frenzied overacting, they’re each given exactly one character trait to focus on: Heder is a magician, Arnett an artist, etc. They each loudly remind us of this one profession/trait every time they turn up onscreen. Meanwhile, token Perfect Dude Josh Duhamel might also be under the fountain-coin spell, since he’s both smitten with Bell and behaving in a cartoony way, largely by clumsily smashing into things.
Exaggerated situations and characters are nothing new for comedies, but screenwriters David Diamond and David Weissman (also partners on Old Dogs and Evolution) go far beyond exaggeration by spelling out every moment in the clumsiest, most obvious way imaginable: This is the kind of film where characters actually say things like “I am in love with my job!” and “Thank you for making me believe in love again!” And director Mark Steven Johnson (who proved himself equally inept at superhero stories by writing and directing Ghost Rider and Daredevil) apparently coached his actors to deliver those ridiculous lines as emphatically as if they each ended in an Internet-worthy spaz-attack row of exclamation points. Handled with the slightest bit of moderation or finesse, this story might have been funny, or at least what passes for funny in a generic rom-com. Instead, it’s the kind of wretched embarrassment that may leave viewers trying to suspend the belief that they’re still sitting in the theater watching it.