Omigod, she might choose Ralph Bellamy! That’s one way to view “Letters to Juliet,” as an inversion of “His Girl Friday,” whose heroine unsurprisingly picked sexy, fast-talking professional Cary Grant over stolid mama’s boy Bellamy. Here, Amanda Seyfried, dissatisfied with adorable workaholic chef Gael Garcia Bernal, leans toward upright, uptight Brit Christopher Egan and his tag-along grandmum, a luminous Vanessa Redgrave (the true object of her affection). But it remains to be seen whether auds will slog through Gary Winick’s syrupy Italy-set romantic comedy to witness these indomitable femmes carry the day, and the film, when it bows May 14.
Sophie (Seyfried) is a fact checker and wannabe writer at the New Yorker spending a Tuscan pre-honeymoon with fiance Victor (Bernal), who ignores her as he excitedly chases down exotic foodstuffs for his soon-to-open Manhattan eatery. In a fairly well-executed caricature turn, Bernal’s Victor rhapsodizes about fabricating the perfect noodle as he meets with suppliers, attends wine auctions and hunts down 300-year-old recipes across Italia, leaving Sophie in the lurch.
Stranded in a postcard-y Verona (the City of Love — nudge, nudge), Sophie visits the house of the fabled Juliet, where weeping women pen lonely-hearts letters to the ill-fated lover and post them on the courtyard walls. Curious, Sophie follows a woman she sees gathering up the notes, and stumbles upon the secretaries of Juliet — signoras of all ages and backgrounds who answer the plaintive missives; they invite Sophie to join them. Extricating an ancient letter from 1957, Sophie writes back, summoning a hopeful Claire (Redgrave) and her peevish grandson, Charlie (Egan).
The trio then embark on a mission to uncover which of the 74 Lorenzo Bartolinis in Tuscany is Claire’s long-lost soulmate, a comic opportunity director Winick (“Bride Wars,” “13 Going on 30”) exploits only perfunctorily before revealing the right Lorenzo. Meanwhile, of course, the hostility between Sophie and Charlie slowly morphs into Something Else.
“Letters to Juliet” is curiously sexless (the PG rating says it all), and its most sensually charged scene sees a motherly Claire brushing and caressing Sophie’s hair. Otherwise, Sophie simply exchanges mad hugs with Victor and chaste kisses with Charlie. Pic similarly lacks any edge, tension or credible relationship with the real world; Sophie’s story about Claire’s quest immediately gains her the respect of her boss (Oliver Platt) and an improbably secure writing gig, while Charlie’s declaration of love as he climbs to Sophie’s balcony includes a vow to drop his law practice and follow her to New York, a city he despises.
Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan’s script relentlessly piles on goopy conversation-stoppers like “Do you believe in destiny?” and “I didn’t know that true love had an expiration date.” Apparently, unleavened schmaltz is best served on an Italian platter, though among “Juliet’s” forebears, even “Only You” admitted to its contrivances, and “Under the Tuscan Sun” explored natives and expats to more engaging effect.
Seyfried, back in “Mamma Mia!” territory after her walk on the wild side in Atom Egoyan’s Chloe, brings an erotic tinge to her sassy girl-next-door innocence, while Redgrave again proves positively radiant in her white-haired majesty. Bernal’s overeager chef remains cute even in his maddening obliviousness, while Egan’s Charlie stays as stiffly wooden as a Lombardy poplar.
Pic’s bouncy score is ever-present, while scenic Tuscan drives border on the superficially picturesque.