It’s not that “When in Rome” is stupid. It kind of is, but no more so than a lot of other movies. It’s not miscast either; in fact it’s hard to believe many of these actors are having such a hard time getting any traction in their scenes. It’s just that on some basic, primeval level, “When in Rome” is deeply, deeply unfunny.
It shouldn’t be. Director Mark Steven Johnson (“Daredevil”) should know how to do these things after coming up as a comedy screenwriter. Off the top it looks like he does. He’s surrounded his star with a talented and genuinely funny supporting cast for her would-be admirers: an itinerant italian painter (Will Arnett), a Chris Angel-inspired street magician (Jon Heder) and a narcissistic model (Dax Shepard).
It’s even got a spark of creativity and originality, with a few instances of genuine inspiration like a bar that is entirely in the dark so no one can see or the fact that Beth’s most likely potential suitor (Josh Duhamel) is well-known for being struck by lightening during a football game. Enough even that you can forgive the idea of Beth making men fall in love with her by taking their coins from an ancient wishing fountain in Rome.
It’s just that someone, somewhere, doesn’t seem to have any faith in any of this good stuff that could probably have made a good movie. Instead it’s all steamrollered under a pile of slapstick that is unnecessary, ill-fitting, and worst of all, unfunny. The basic premise for most of the humor is the same one for most Hollywood comedies; to put the characters into as awkward a situation as possible and watch them squirm.
And then they trip over something. No joke, it seems, can be made funnier by having the characters hurt themselves or someone else. And if you don’t happen to buy into that philosophy, “When in Rome” is going to make you buy into it by repeating it over and over and over again. The worst recipient is Nick (Duhamel) who’s main comedic contribution is a lack of peripheral vision, causing him to run into things often.
The Black Out Bar, where Nick tries to explain that his interest in Beth is real not fantasy, is the perfect microcosm for the film. It’s a genuinely interesting idea ripe for actual comedy. None of the patrons can see each other; only the waiters (who seem to get off on voyeurism) using night-vision goggles. The chances for miscommunication, accident and error are built into it. So instead of using anything from the scene to create tension and humor, the filmmakers instead fill it with Beth’s potential suitors slapping on Nick in the dark and making people bump into things they can’t see.
It’s an insipid waste and that’s “When in Rome” in a nutshell. Every ounce of potential has been steadfastly turned away from in order to make a safe little piece of clowning. A stupid movie is usually bad enough, but a smart movie that seems that seems to have had a lobotomy forced on it is disheartening on every level. Avoid.