Philippe Antonello/Touchstone Pictures
Josh Duhamel and Kristen Bell are two of the few non-terrible things about When In Rome.
Philippe Antonello/Touchstone Pictures
Movies that are 100 percent bad — Year One, for instance, or The Ugly Truth — offer a certain kind of grim satisfaction. Your brain can turn entirely against them, assaulted by a never-ending parade of bad jokes, clumsy compositions, weak acting, and — in the case of The Ugly Truth — even what look to be comically terrible green-screen shots. It's like watching a sports team you hate when it's losing. You just sit back, eat popcorn, and let the hostility overwhelm you.
The ones that will drive you crazy are the movies that are about 87 percent bad, like When In Rome.
When In Rome stars Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) as a woman named Beth, who ... wow, as soon as you start to explain it, it gets so stupid so quickly.
She's at a wedding in Rome when she gets drunk and takes some coins out of the fountain where you wish for love. This means that the men who threw them instantly fall in love with her. This is what I like to call the Hum-Through Plot, because if you want to have any chance at all to enjoy the movie, you have to begin humming loudly and blithely to yourself as the plot is explained, so you can ignore how ridiculous it is. The Hum-Through Plot isn't necessarily fatal to a romantic comedy, but it's a challenge.
At any rate, the generically named Beth meets the equally generically named Nick (Josh Duhamel), who is just barely a sportswriter (meaning the movie uses about a quarter of a scene to establish that fact). They hit it off in the opening scenes, but unfortunately, they have a Big Misunderstanding, and something-something, and then it's back to New York, where Beth (who, logically, can't otherwise get a date, because she looks like Kristen Bell) (louder! hum louder!) is now being hounded by the four guys whose coins she stole. Because now they are in love with her.
Oh, it gets so very much worse, after the jump.
Those four guys: a sausage magnate (Danny DeVito), an artist (Will Arnett), a magician (Jon Heder), and a vain workout obsessive (Dax Shepard).
I know what you're thinking: "This story seems like it could be kind of hammy and stupid, so I'm certainly glad they have noted models of restraint Danny DeVito, Will Arnett, Jon Heder, and Dax Shepard on board."
Most of this movie is so painfully dumb that I could actually hear myself moaning. Declarations of love (not magical-coin-love, but what's meant to be actual real love) between people who effectively don't know each other, a woman who responds to being stalked by Danny DeVito with a sort of "ah, well" resignation, scenes where romantic love is stoked by hearing somebody say words to the effect of "I just keep thinkin' about my old man," a wacky assistant, a schlubby best friend, the alleged comedy of funny accents ... it is a waste of everyone. It is arguably a waste even of Dax Shepard, who, according to the Internet Movie Database, made his film debut playing a character named "Vomiter At Party." It is agonizingly bad, almost all the time.
What is crazy about When In Rome is that Bell and Duhamel actually have scenes in which sparky little bits of romantic chemistry are trying desperately to take hold, but it's like watching a pharmaceutical salesperson try to build a fire with sticks on Survivor — there's smoke, and smoke, and smoke, like something is going to happen, and then it never does.
Kristen Bell is a very appealing actress, and there are moments when she seems to have a little bit of the put-upon, frustrated charm that Sandra Bullock had as a young rom-com lead. And Josh Duhamel, who has effectively no character to play here at all, nevertheless has all the transparent likability he would need for a significantly better movie.
But here they are, mired in this miserable story where, every time they start to have an enjoyable, potentially engaging conversation, here's Dax Shepard showing up in tight pants, or Will Arnett being tremendously unfunny for one of the first times ever, or a running joke where a guy keeps walking into trees, which has absolutely no place in the movie, except that hey, sometimes a guy runs into a tree and people laugh, so why not put that in there?
There are all kinds of signs of trouble. For one thing, the movie actually has sort of a false ending, and this is not a movie that should have a false ending, because the realization that the movie is not yet over is not a happy one. For another thing, when Beth's father is introduced, they use a movie-star reveal, with camera work that says, "Aaaaand in the role of Beth's father, it's ... DON JOHNSON!" I mean, you can get away with that, maybe, if Beth's father is being played by Dustin Hoffman or some other massively overqualified star who owes the director a favor. But when you are saving your big "Bet you didn't see that one coming!" reveal for Don Johnson, you are pushing your luck.
But 13 percent of the movie is these frustrating little attempts to win you back. Kristen Schaal takes a supremely unfunny setup involving a restaurant where you eat in the dark (hey, sometimes people bump into each other and people laugh, so let's throw that in there!) and makes her brief role as the hostess several orders of magnitude funnier than it should be. And I'll be damned if a bunch of people stuffed into a tiny car isn't comedy. So your mind can't completely relax, because now and then, it is distracted with disastrous feelings of hope.
The entire movie, on the whole, is like watching a blindfolded guy take batting practice. He takes a few hundred swings and misses the vast majority of them, and most of the time, all you want to do is walk up, take the bat out of his hands, and use it to conk yourself on the head until you pass out. But at the end, it might be all you can do to tell him, "Boy, that one you dribbled up the first-base line, that really got my heart pounding, under the circumstances."