When in Rome: When Not Quite Awful May Have to Do

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Walt Disney Studios / Everett

Josh Duhamel and Kristen Bell star in When in Rome.

Correction appended: February 1, 2010

Going to the multiplex in January is like taking a Baghdad stroll with the IED squad from The Hurt Locker: there are bombs everywhere, and you're sure to stumble upon at least one. After enduring some of the Inexcusable Entertainment Devices from the first weeks of 2010 — Leap Year, The Spy Next Door, Tooth Fairy — the crap-detecting sense of moviegoers becomes so acute that they may be grateful for a picture that registers between Abysmally Awful and Mildly Mediocre. Such a one would be When in Rome, which is possible to sit through without wanting to stick darts in your eyes or frag the screen. Call it medi-awful.

Beth (Kristen Bell) is bright, nice, pretty and the youngest curator at Manhattan's Guggenheim Museum. She has just about everything a 20-something could want; but, since this is a standard contemporary romantic comedy, her life is empty because, she says, she hasn't discovered a man wonderful enough to make her want to chuck her job. She soon finds one, when she takes a two-day break from the big exhibition she's preparing and goes to Rome for her sister's wedding. There she meets the groom's best friend Nick (Josh Duhamel). In rom-com terms there's something wrong with him — in that there's "nothing" wrong with him. He doesn't hate her from the start; he's not mismatched with Beth in class or temperament. In fact, he's an even more fabulous specimen than she is: tall, handsome, genial, with sensational teeth and a good job as an ESPN reporter. And he instantly loves her. It is the movie's task to erect obstacles that will keep them apart until the last reel.

The gimmick is that Beth, having seen Nick with another woman at the wedding reception, gets squiffed and wanders outside to a Fontana de Amore, where local legend instructs visitors to wish for love by throwing a coin in the water. Graybeards will recall Rome's Fountain of Trevi as the romantic trigger for the plot of the 1954 Three Coins in the Fountain; Hilary Duff honored the tradition in The Lizzie McGuire Movie back in 2003. When in Rome invents a corollary legend: that if you remove a coin from the fountain, the person who put it there will instantly and passionately fall in love with you. Beth takes five, and in short order has a quintet of love slaves: a magician (Jon Heder), an artist (Will Arnett), a male model (Dax Shepard), a sausage entrepreneur (Danny De Vito)... and Nick. Somehow the first four follow Beth back to New York to serve as the marplots for her budding affair with Mr. Perfect.

At 29, Bell has fronted two cult TV series, as the teen sleuth in Veronica Mars and the narrator of Gossip Girls; last year, in real movies, she was Jason Bateman's wife in Couples Retreat and the Sarah Marshall whom Jason Segel had to forget. Bell emits a wholesomeness that is slightly starched; she's not a dream girl, exactly, more a kid's favorite aunt. Duhamel, 37, who's been the second male lead in the Transformers movies and starred in Las Vegas for five years, has the reassuring presence of a cuter Tom Hanks, a Greg Kinnear with fewer creases. He and Bell share a domestic glow best suited to TV; their middle-wattage radiance can fill a living room but not quite light up a movie auditorium.

Yet they are the lifelines for When in Rome, because the supporting cast, including Anjelica Huston as a Guggenheim chief curator and Bobby Moynihan as Nick's very possessive pal, has no characters or amusing lines, no substance or subtext, to work with. Beth's four pursuers are even lamer. Heder and Arnett were splendid as Will Ferrell's skating partner and chief rival in Blades of Glory; to see them here, reduced to floundering, is to witness a small crime against comedy expertise. As sad as this is, it's no shock, since the director, Mark Steven Johnson, and writers David Diamond and David Weissman are bad-movie recidivists, having previously been guilty of perpetrating Grumpy Old Men, Old Dogs, Jack Frost and other comedy misdemeanors. When in Rome, because of its two agreeable leads, is probably their least egregious work to date.

It's also, by default, the best of a bad lot of January comedies. Sometimes a desperate moviegoer has to settle for medi-awful.

The original version of this article stated that Kristen Bell played the role of Jon Favreau's wife in Couple's Retreat, a role played by Kristin Davis.