In case you haven't noticed, actress Kristen Bell has slowly been changing her on-screen image over the past few years from sci-fi genre queen to comedian. The actress began her career young working on some gritty projects including TV's "The Shield" and "Deadwood" as well as the David Mamet film "Spartan." But it was her starring role on the show "Veronica Mars" and eventually "Heroes" that made her a household name among fan-boys everywhere. However as of late, the actress has grown quite the reputation for comedy. She appeared in the extremely successful ensemble comedy films "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Couples Retreat" as well as Cheryl Hines' directorial debut "Serious Moonlight," not to mention her recurring role on the popular sitcom "Party Down." But now comes her chance to take center-stage starring in her own romantic comedy, "When In Rome." The film features Bell in the leading role and the actress shows not only that she has a knack for comedy but that she also possesses that all-important "it" quality that all good female leads must have. Like Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Reese Witherspoon before her Bell is able to play the goofy, unlucky-in-love, sympathetic character with a certain charm that makes you absolutely fall in love with her and root for her to succeed.
The film is a loose remake of '1954s "Three Coins In The Fountain" and features an all-star cast of comedians including Will Arnett ("Arrested Development"), Dax Shepard ("Baby Mama"), Jon Heder ("Napoleon Dynamite") and Danny DeVito ("Twins") as well as Don Johnson ("Miami Vice"), Oscar Winner Anjelica Huston ("The Royal Tenenbaums") and Josh Duhamel ("Transformers") as Bell's romantic lead. Bell plays Beth Harper, a workaholic and perpetually single curator of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. When Beth's younger sister impulsively marries a man from Italy, she is off to attend the wedding in Rome. Beth's family is concerned that she works too hard and will never find love and happiness. While attending the wedding Beth meets Nick, the groom's best man played surprisingly well by Duhamel who seems quite at home here in this comedic setting. After hitting it off with Nick, Beth believes that she sees him with another woman and loses interest. Discouraged, she curses a magic fountain that is believed to be the "fountain of love" by the locals. Mad at love she picks up five coins from the fountain and heads back to New York.
Unbeknownst to Beth the magic was real and because she tampered with it the owners of the coins are madly in love with her. Her suitors consist of the following cast of characters, a "Chiss Angel-like" street magician played by the very funny Jon Heder, a self-obsessed male model played pitch perfectly by Dax Shepard, a crazy Italian artist played by the hilarious Will Arnett, a business man played by the great Danny DeVito and a mystery-suitor who may or may not be Nick. As the spell on her becomes more and more apparent Beth realizes what has happened and starts to believe in the magic of the fountain. As her suitors become more and more unbearable she starts to fall in love with Nick but fears that he is just under the same spell as the others. Meanwhile, Beth's boss played by the always-fabulous Anjelica Huston is pressuring her to make sure that her upcoming art showing goes off without a hitch and is worried about her recent odd behavior. Unable to shake off the pursuit of her admirers Beth learns that the only way to break the spell is to return the coins to the fountain or return them to their rightful owners. With her job on the line Beth will have to face her stalkers and decide if Nick really loves her or if he is just under a magical spell. What comes next is more than magic as all of Beth's lovesick followers band together to help her save her job, find out the truth about Nick and maybe even find a little bit of happiness in the end.
Although the film does seem like your average romantic comedy on the surface the movie is a real comedic farce through and through. In many ways it feels like a throwback to classic romantic comedies of the '40s and '50s like "The Philadelphia Story" and "Roman Holiday." While the plot is essentially a romantic comedy the film just serves up one hysterical moment after another and there is a lot of physical comedy in the film as well, which is always nice to see. I can't say enough about how great the cast is. Josh Duhamel is so surprisingly good in this role. The actor who is best known for playing macho guys in action films really feels at home here among the other comedians and delivers some great comedic moments. I was also impressed with his physical comedic skills. He is perfect in the role, charming, witty and Bell and he have a great on-screen chemistry. The actor also had some emotional scenes to deliver in the film, which he did quite well and showed a lot of range. Dax Shepard is very funny in the movie and I couldn't help but wonder if his shallow, self-obsessed male model isn't perhaps a slight parody of Shepard's old "Punked" buddy Ashton Kutcher?
Jon Heder is also funny in his role as the odd street magician channeling his old "Napoleon Dynamite" character just a bit. Speaking of which, "Dynamite" fans keep an eye out for a special cameo appearance by an old friend, I won't say anything else except it makes for a greatly welcomed reunion between Heder and his former co-star. Will Arnett is as brilliant as always and is hilarious in every scene he's in. His character has a great arc and look out for a possible love-connection between him and Shepard near the end of the film, which is good for a laugh. It's also really nice to see veteran actors like Danny DeVito and Anjelica Huston in the movie who both bring a legitimacy and authenticity to the film. But it is the performance of Kristen Bell that really holds the movie together. She is absolutely adorable in the film and you completely fall in love with her as if you were under a spell too. In fact, Bell casts a spell on the entire audience in this film with her funny, warm and real performance. Bell succeeds pulling off starring in her own film-vehicle and deserves credit for making the movie work. She has definitely proven that she has what it takes to be a major movie star.
Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson, who is best known for directing comic book films like "Daredevil" and "Ghost Rider" slid in to this genre with ease. The script is clever, smart, charming and very funny. Be sure to stay for the ending credits, as there is a very funny "Mama Mia!" style dance number that includes the entire cast. I give the film credit for taking a reasonably predictable premise and making it fun, clever and completely original. The film also has a warm, human side and definitely has a heart. "When In Rome" is the perfect date movie this Valentine Season. It's not a chick-flick but it is a romantic film with lots of comedy and funny moments for the guys. While the movie may not be right for everyone, I really do think that it serves as an intelligent, original and funny romantic comedy that anyone with half a heart can relate to.
When in Rome is out January 29, 2010.