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Thursday, 9 September 2010

Beth (Kristen Bell) and Nick (Josh Duhamel) get down Italian style at the beginning of When In Rome (dir Mark Steven Johnson, 2010) and the hilarity continues at an "unrelenting" pace (this film is so goofy it's got pompoms on and outsized shoes) right through to the closing credits where the two outdo their earlier efforts by getting funky in traditional American style: hip-hop, jive and jazz. This neat inversion of dance styles brings a spotlight to bear on the enduring sense of discomfort felt in America for all things foreign.

A comedy ends in reconciliation, usually after a marriage, and the sense of closure in this film can only be achieved through the matching of the two down-to-earth, blue-blooded Yankee heartthrobs. Because the wedding that started it all - the one that brought together Beth's sister Joan (Alexis Dziena) and her new-found Italian beau Umberto (Luca Calvani) - is, simply, just a mite too ethnic and strange to qualify for the critical role of ultimate resolver of the concern, worry and disquiet that unfulfilled romance can visit on any one among us.

But Americans have always had this weird love-hate relationship with the Old World. In this film, it's as visible as mouth cancer, and just about as attractive. On the plus side, the film has its moments of real humour.

It starts in Rome (city of love) at a fountain with a statue of a woman who, it is said, represents the evergreen emotion: 'amore'. Beth steps out of the wedding reception amid all of its pungent celebratory weirdness and straight into the fountain, where she picks up a handful of the coins that have been tossed there by others in search of that elusive but inspiring experience. A star shoots across the heavens as she drops the errant coins in her clutch purse, bringing with them the hearts of four men.

Back in New York, Beth is busy. As an art curator (who said this was a chick-flic?) she's ambitious as well as cultured-to-the-gills. Nick has returned, too. As a reporter, he's encircled by a wholesome ordinariness that is embodied in a set of friends of an unremarkableness so studied it makes his earlier dreams of finding fame in football seem absolutely, unquestionably reasonable. What could be more All-American than a football career for a college jock? Ah, Beth. If only your life could be so solid.

It's not, of course. The amorous searchers from the Eternal City have tracked Beth down and they blithely run roughshod over her peace of mind. Who are they anyway? Oh, just a crazy bunch of All-American mistfits. There's Antonio (Will Arnett), a shoe salesman from Newark who dreams of being an Italian fine artist. There's Lance (John Heder), a prestidigitating emo whose magic tricks are only slightly less annoying than his anime-inspired haircut. There's Gale (Dax Shepard), a buff-torsoed advertising model whose love for himself is only exceeded by the loathsomeness of his head-scarf. And there's Al Russo (Danny De Vito), a widowed sausage manufacturer. Basta.

Sure, they're goofy and unpreposessing. But at least they're ours (ie they're American) and so their efforts to get Beth together with Nick at the end of the film redeem them in our eyes because they bring the two lovers together for the kiss that will cement the unquiet affections that are pulsating like Mexican hurricanes in each of their hearts. Our sense of closure is ruffled only momentarily by the fact that it takes place at the entrance to the Guggenheim Museum, a really (really!) very-slightly Romantic setting with its endless spiral corridor and shiny, white walls.

Ultimately, the movie says "choose someone like yourself". It's not xenophobic, precisely. On the other hand, it's hardly promoting adventurous spirits. As such, the message goes against one of the primary human genetically-encoded strategies: seek out new territory. It tells us to appreciate what you recognise, based on narrow principles of taste, as good. It's not openly xenophobic but it comes very close to being highly critical of anything that comes from outside a narrow selection of love interests.

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