If you'd told me at the start of the year that I would only like one of the two major releases this weekend, either "Robin Hood" or "Letters To Juliet," I would not have been surprised.  But if you'd told me that the film made by Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe would be the one I found to be an intolerable collection of cliches and poor script decisions, I would never have believed you.

Gary Winick has demonstrated some ability with this sort of material.  "Tadpole" was an interesting small-scale film, and "13 Going On 30" was a shameless riff on "Big" that worked because Jennifer Garner made it work.  Winick also has "Bride Wars" to answer for, though, so he's certainly not without his sins to answer for.  This sort of breezy romantic film seems like one of the easiest things in the world to pull off, and certainly there are dozens of them a year.  Most of them are terrible, though, dependent on truly stupid and unlikeable characters, focused on the idea that women are incomplete without a man, incapable of anything that doesn't involve "romance."  I find it amazing that women actually watch "chick flicks," because so many of them seem to genuinely hate women and treat them like thin-skulled creeps.

"Letters To Juliet," which takes its basic inspiration from a true story, is a gentle, charming story that features a winning lead performance from Amanda Seyfried, who is finally starting to carry films on her own, and who proves here that she's absolutely capable of doing so.  She plays Sophie, a fact checker for The New Yorker, a girl on the verge of marriage to Victor (Gael García Bernal), and from the very start of the film, they allow her play a credible mix of strength and insecurity that has more to do with her age and experience than it does with her gender. She and Victor have a pre-honeymoon trip planned to Verona, although they have very different ideas about what they're going to be going to be doing once they get there.

For Victor, it's a chance to meet with suppliers for the restaurant he's about to open, a chance to sample wines and foods all over the country and learn new techniques that he can adapt to his own cooking.  It's a business trip for him, while for Sophie, it was supposed to be a last chance to get away before Victor gets lost in his restaurant and she begins what she hope will be a successful writing career.  She is drawn to Victor because of his passion for what he does, but it's the same thing that keeps her in second place in his attentions pretty much all the time.  It gets more and more pronounced, until finally Victor abandons her and takes off for a multi-day wine auction in another part of the country.

Instead of being a movie about Sophie chasing her man around trying to win him back, though, the film focuses on the way Sophie begins to find her own passion, the way she takes a small coincidence and follows it to the first story of her career worth telling.  While in Verona, she goes to visit the home of "Juliet," the courtyard and balcony that has become the official residence of Shakespeare's legendary star-crossed lover.  Every year, thousands of letters are brought to that courtyard and left there, addressed to Juliet, or mailed by people who can't make the trip.  The Juliet Club, also known as the Secretaries of Juliet, is an organization of volunteers who take every one of those letters and write responses back to the broken-hearted people.  The first time I knew about them was when Elvis Costello recorded his album "The Juliet Letters," and there's something very powerful in the idea of all of these cries of pain to be not only heard but answered.  Sophie's drawn to the idea, and when she offers to help for a few days, she ends up finding a letter that's been tucked into the wall for over fifty years and she decides to answer it herself. 

She's not expecting to actually see that story play out, but a few days later, the woman she wrote to actually arrives in Verona, and Sophie ends up drawn into the orbit of Claire (Vanessa Redgrave), this English woman who had one perfect summer with an Italian man named Lorenzo a half-century ago.  She agrees to help Claire track down her Lorenzo to see if there's any chance for a reunion, and the majority of the film is about the idea of picking up where you left off and dealing with the "what ifs" that so many of us carry around, weighed down by regret.  Claire's got a grandson named Charlie (Christopher Egan) who travels with her, and he and Sophie begin a love/hate flirtation that pretty much anyone will figure out the trajectory of about twenty seconds after they first meet.  Their storyline is the weakest in the film, but even so, what makes it work is that their attraction isn't based on some outrageous lie or some weird misunderstanding or a bet or any of the other dozens of moronic staples of the genre.  Charlie's protective of his grandmother, and Sophie's engaged, so their attraction is a genuine issue between them.  The more Sophie realizes that she is simply an accessory in Victor's life, the more she starts to realize how good it feels when Charlie recognizes her accomplishments and actually reads her work and sees her as a person, not just an idea.

"Letters To Juliet" is absolute fantasy in many regards.  I spent much of the movie wondering how a fact-checker for The New Yorker can afford the lifestyle we see in the film, even on a vacation, and there's not a lot of drama along the way.  It's all fairly linear.  But Redgrave is one of those actors who can take even the simplest material and invest it with depth and feeling, and in many ways, there are personal echoes here that have to make her feel connected to what she's playing.  She and Franco Nero fell in love when they were making "Camelot" together in the '60s, and they had a child together.  She left Nero, though, and spent many years with Timothy Dalton.  It was only in the last decade that Redgrave and Nero got back together, and now they're actually married.  Casting Nero as the long-lost Lorenzo is a sort of genius detail for the film, and it makes for some very natural, lovely moments between the two once they're reunited.  As for Seyfried, she's a beautiful young woman with plush 1940s-Hollywood looks, and she is able to play smart and capable and complex in the film.  She's got a hard road ahead of her as an actor because much of what she'll be offered will be the exact sort of crap that this film refutes.  But looking at the way she's done things so far, one can hope that this is the sort of project she chases as she moves forward.  If she's going to be a mainstream romantic movie star, and she certainly has every qualification to be one, then at least she's managed to find a movie that genuinely celebrates romance as opposed to another creepy woman-hating "comedy" about how worthless a girl is without a ring.  Seyfried's Sophie is made complete by her own accomplishments in the film, and any love she finds is simply an added bonus.  That idea alone takes this simple confection and renders it nearly revolutionary.

"Letters To Juliet" opens in theaters this Friday.

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