Firing a rather tepid opening salvo in Hollywood’s annual Valentine’s Day rom-com blitz is When in Rome starring Kristen Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall TV’s Veronica Mars) and Josh Duhamel (Turistas the Transformers flicks) and directed by Mark Steven Johnson (Ghost Rider Daredevil). You read that correctly: Johnson a guy who gave us two critically-reviled comic book flicks was tapped by Disney to direct a movie entirely devoid of acrobatic fight sequences or computerized visual effects the only filmmaking skills for which he’s received consistent praise. Hmmm ... maybe this is why Dick Cook was fired.
Bell plays Beth a high-strung New York City museum curator whose frustration over her barren love life spills over at her sister’s wedding in Rome where she winds up drunkenly splashing around in the city’s fictional “Fontana D’Amore.” The embarrassing but harmless episode takes a momentous turn however when Beth absentmindedly steals a handful of coins from the fountain unknowingly triggering an ancient Italian curse. Soon she’s romantically besieged by a diverse and highly aggressive group of oddballs played by Danny DeVito Dax Shepard Will Arnett and Jon Heder — the very men whose coins she plucked from the fabled fountain.
The concept isn’t entirely without potential but When in Rome’s script takes the quartet of previously funny actors and comedically castrates them forcing them to survive this creative Dust Bowl on precisely one joke apiece. DeVito playing a sausage magnate emits only meat-related quips; Shepard’s self-obsessed model explores the comic possibilities of his washboard stomach; hapless street artist Arnett plasters the city with nude portraits of his unrequited love; and Heder’s wannabe magician mounts a series of botched magic tricks. (In a gag that might have been funny back in 2004 Efren Ramirez Napoleon Dynamite’s Pedro enjoys a cameo as Heder’s videographer. He’s this week’s winner of the Jeff Zucker “How Does This Guy Have a Job?” Award.)
All of which serves to delay the inevitable coupling of Bell and Duhamel two likable leads who gamely trudge through material so inane so bland — and so safe — that it could fit comfortably in one of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s increasingly soporific family comedies. In fact I’m not even sure if When in Rome made use of the standard PG-13 allotment of one F-word (used in a non-sexual manner of course). Expect to hear it used liberally however by fellow audience members as the credits roll on this middling debacle.
Welcome to the obsessive world of crossword puzzling. If you’re a crossword aficionado you already know who Will Shortz and Merl Reagle are. If not they are respectively the editor and one of the top creators of crosswords for the New York Times and in this film you get to find out what makes them tick. If you’re a puzzle fan--and maybe even if you’re not--this is a fun peek at one of the country’s most popular hobbies. The Sunday NY Times crossword puzzle is the gold standard of crosswords and to crack it on your own in one sitting is a feat anyone can be proud of. It’s a kick to see such famous puzzlers as Daily Show host Jon Stewart and former President Bill Clinton talk about why they enjoy the challenge of a good puzzle and to see them as well as the Indigo Girls and documentarian Ken Burns sit down and crack the same puzzle. We also meet regular joes who take part in the annual crossword puzzle competition in Connecticut from the returning champs to a 20-year-old challenger who would set a new record if he proves the fastest puzzler. You get remarkably caught up in the contestants’ lives--and marvel how they can solve so swiftly without even the aid of a single reference book. The direction is completely no-frills but the story and its participants are compelling enough to keep your interest.