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Film Review: ‘Walking on Sunshine’

With its "Mamma Mia"-esque setup and pop playlist of '80s hits, this jukebox musical offers bubble-gum fun in the sun.

Annabel Scholey, Hannah Arterton, Giulio Berruti, Greg Wise, Katy Brand, Leona Lewis, Danny Kirane, Giulio Corso. (English, Italian dialogue)

Two sisters — one newly smitten with a handsome Italian, the other quietly hung up on a past holiday fling — realize they have their hearts set on the same guy in “Walking on Sunshine,” a high-energy jukebox musical from “StreetDance” directors Max Giwa and Dania Pasquini that’s as shamelessly unoriginal as it is guiltlessly entertaining. But why shouldn’t a pic whose soundtrack consists entirely of ’80s pop hits be allowed to recycle tricks that have worked for everyone from Jane Austen to Abba? Featuring British chantoosie Leona Lewis’ bubble-gum acting debut, “Sunshine” (which opens Friday in the U.K.) should brighten up the Euro box office this summer.

How many times have you heard such catchy ’80s chart-toppers as Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love” and the Bangles’ “Eternal Flame,” but have you ever really listened to the lyrics? As vapid and overproduced as much of the decade’s music undoubtedly was, there’s genuine poetry between the lines, and screenwriter Joshua St Johnston has dedicated himself to reverse-engineering a “Mamma Mia!”-like romantic comedy plot from songs an entire generation knows so well, they’ll be hard-pressed to avoid chiming in.

Amid a playlist that takes Cyndi Lauper and Whitney Houston at their word, Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” must have been the starting point, considering that this colorful destination romance is all buildup to a big decision at the altar. With its perfect-fit “hey little sister” lyrics, the song sets up a sororal love triangle in which it’s anyone’s guess who will end up hitched to fab-abbed Raf (Giulio Berruti): Will he choose impulsive, “in love with love” Maddie (Annabel Scholey) or the more cautious Taylor (Hannah Arterton), who has learned much from Maddie’s mistakes?

The tuner opens with a playful Disney Channel-like cover of Madonna’s “Holiday,” launching a fully choreographed flash mob in the airport to greet Taylor’s arrival in Puglia. Located in the heel of Italy’s boot, just a Vespa ride from the La Tomatina festival, this beautiful Mediterranean getaway seems an ideal spot for Maddie to “mantox” (flushing her ex out of her system) and soak up some sun (her skin looks fluorescent orange compared with that of her pasty British sis).

Taylor knows Puglia from a visit three years earlier, during which she met her dream guy, Raf, whose bronzed bod and ocean-blue eyes are all the qualification we need to consider him a keeper. Unfortunately for her, Taylor didn’t keep him at the time, breaking Raf’s heart when she went back to England to finish school. Now, it might be too late, since Maddie has scooped him up for herself, unaware that Raf and her sister have history together — a point that Taylor, playing close to the melodrama manual, decides should best be kept secret.

This makes things especially hard for their mutual friends, a group that includes a softball supporting part for Lewis (a welcome splash of color in this white-bread ensemble) and several other side characters, playing cartoonishly one-dimensional variations on fat (Danny Kirane), horny (Katy Brand) and gratuitously handsome (Giulio Corso). Much of “Sunshine” takes place either poolside or at the beach, providing ample excuse for slow-motion shirtlessness. In a tuner geared toward predominately female auds, it’s not at all uncommon for the camera to follow whichever stud happens to be exiting the scene, leaving the lady characters to discuss less interesting things in the foreground while the just-departed eye-candy goes for a swim.

Sure, this is broad, mollycoddling entertainment of the sort few dare attempt in the irony-tainted U.S., where the pic stands a better chance than “StreetDance” of getting a decent release, but it’s done with enough finesse by Max and Dania (as the helming duo is credited onscreen) that auds will feel motivated to play along. Such stories are typically pretty easy to predict from the beginning, especially when Maddie’s ex (Greg Wise, looking especially unctuous with his triangle-shaped soul patch) turns up trying to win her back with fun, sexually charged covers of “Don’t You Want Me” and “Faith.” Still, this one keeps you guessing, with half the fun being a question of which retro hit the cast will unearth next.

Of the ensemble, all but Berruti sound great singing. In his case, the thick Italian accent gets in the way, suggesting how a karaoke session with Roberto Benigni might sound. And it’s a shame the producers didn’t manage to convince Gemma Arterton — real-life big sis to relative newcomer Hannah — to play Maddie. Though undeniably gorgeous, Scholey draws from a rather limited repertoire of cutesy facial expressions, clearly nicked from the Keira Knightley playbook. Besides, it would be fun to watch real sisters compete for the honor of waxing Raf’s washboard stomach.

Film Review: 'Walking on Sunshine'

Reviewed at Taormina Film Festival, June 18, 2014. Running time: 97 MIN.

Production: (U.K.) A Vertigo Films release, presentation and production in association with IM Global. (International sales: IM Global, Los Angeles.) Produced by Allan Niblo, James Richardson, Caroline Levy. Executive producers, Rupert Preston, Nigel Williams, Nick Love, Al Munteanu, Stuart Ford.

Crew: Directed by Max and Dania. Screenplay, Joshua St Johnston. Camera (color, widesreen), Philipp Blaubach; editor, Robin Sales; music, Anne Dudley; music supervisor, Lol Hammond; production designer, Sophie Becher; costume designer, Leonie Hartard; line producers, Louise Killin, Gian Paolo Varani; assistant director, Jamie MacDermott; casting, Vicky Wildman, Buffy Hall, Gary Davy.

With: Annabel Scholey, Hannah Arterton, Giulio Berruti, Greg Wise, Katy Brand, Leona Lewis, Danny Kirane, Giulio Corso. (English, Italian dialogue)

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