Each year thousands of lovelorn women flock to Verona Italy the hometown of Shakespeare’s Juliet to solicit romantic advice from the tragic heroine. They deposit their pleading letters on a wall near the balcony where Romeo supposedly made his famous late-night visit and if they’re lucky receive a reply from one of Juliet’s crew of officially appointed ghostwriters known as the Secretaries of Juliet.
In Gary Winnick's Letters to Juliet young Sophie (the irresistible Amanda Seyfried) while working on a sort of temp assignment with the Secretaries winds up leading an elderly British widow (Vanessa Redgrave) on a quest to reunite her with the Italian boyfriend she abruptly — and regretfully — jilted nearly 50 years prior. It’s a contrived and far-fetched scenario to be sure but no more so than your average Hollywood rom-com and this one at least carries the pleasant side benefit of allowing the filmmakers to set most of the action in picturesque Verona where Seyfried and Redgrave traverse the countryside on their quixotic endeavor.
The charming mother-daughter dynamic that forms between Seyfried’s doe-eyed do-gooder and Redgrave’s wistful grandma carries Letters to Juliet and make its preposterous and unapologetically schmaltzy plot palpable. But their efforts are largely sabotaged by the mediocre men of Juliet Gael Garcia Bernal (Babel The Motorcycle Diaries) and Christopher Egan (Eragon TV's Kings).
The usually terrific Garcia Bernal is really more of a prop than a character in this film. As Seyfried’s future ex-fiance an ADD-addled restaurateur too preoccupied with procuring ingredients for his new menu to tend to his relationship he replays the same scene over and over as if in some sort of Twilight Zone sketch. His intended replacement played by Egan is an insufferable twit we’re meant to believe is some sort of hot-shot human rights lawyer back in his native England — a detail I wouldn’t believe if he held up his law school degree to the camera for us to see.
Equally incredulous is the romantic subplot that develops between him and Seyfried and when the story shifts to them the film rapidly loses steam. Male characters will always play second fiddle in a chick flick — even one written and directed by men — but in Letters to Juliet they’re almost an afterthought seemingly tossed in late in the game to bolster the film’s appeal to young female moviegoers. In the end even someone as talented as Seyfried can’t effectively sell us on her character's eventual pair-up with Egan’s whiny doofus no matter how loudly the Taylor Swift soundtrack presses her case.
Prosperous therapist Giovanni's roster of highly neurotic patients are a stark contrast to his own well-adjusted family which consists of his beloved wife Paola and teenage kids Andrea and Irene. The family resides in a picturesque seaside town on Italy's eastern coast where they share a comfortable book-filled apartment adjacent to his office. But the bourgeois comfort they enjoy is tragically upended when son Andrea dies in a diving accident on a sunny Sunday morning. Not dealing well with the profound grief that ensues Giovanni loses interest in his patients Paola withdraws and daughter Irene rebels. Only when Arianna a previously unknown young female friend of Andrea's unexpectedly emerges does the family find closure and begin to understand that life must and can go on.
Well-known Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti is terrific in the carefully nuanced role as Giovanni a confident professional and devoted family man who learns he's as fragile and vulnerable as his own patients. Moretti's accomplishment is all the more noteworthy because he is also the film's director co-writer and co-producer. Laura Morante is warm and touching as the wife and Jasmine Trinca and Giuseppe Sanfelice as the kids are also top-notch. The natural demeanor of all four actors heightens the authenticity of this close-knit family in crisis. The Son's Room also serves up convincing performances in supporting roles especially those of Giovanni's often desperate patients.
Moretti known for less grim subject-matter shows here his ability with melancholy thoughtful drama. He also skillfully shifts the film's moods drifting from mundane family happenings to the often droll behavior of his neurotic patients to an anguished study of grief and loss to welcome cathartic relief. But the critically acclaimed and similarly themed In the Bedroom covers much the same territory and perhaps deservedly has stolen all the thunder. Moretti's drama is sensitively and convincingly told but is runner-up in the current sweepstakes of films about middle-class grief spawned by loss of a good son.