It’s a little ironic that the fair-minded maiden in “Love in the Villa” yearns for an authentic, romantic Italian vacation since her fairy tale has been cobbled together by Netflix’s practically patented algorithm. Take one part down-on-her-luck female protagonist, add in a handsome-but-cantankerous gentleman either from or in an enchanting European setting, and mix with a generous splash of high jinks that force them to fall head over heels. Yet the blessed surprise awaiting even the most cynical of audiences of writer-director Mark Steven Johnson’s romantic comedy is that within the manufactured product lies a heartening appeal to its sensible delight.
Elementary school teacher Julie (Kat Graham), who is obsessed with “Romeo and Juliet,” has planned the trip of a lifetime with her boyfriend of four years, Brandon (Raymond Ablack). Their jaunt to Verona, Italy, includes everything from reservations at the finest restaurants to themed tours, all while staying in a villa that faces the balcony that inspired the famous scene in Shakespeare’s play. However, despite factoring in a sliver of spontaneity, Julie did not foresee Brandon getting cold feet and dumping her right before they’re to depart. Rather than mope in Minneapolis, she decides to go on the vacation alone.
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After a hellish flight marked by delays, turbulence, screaming babies and lost luggage, as well as a chaotic ride in a Fiat, Julie arrives in the quaint, tourist-filled corridor of La Villa Romantica. Ready to relax before embarking on her solo adventure, she enters her rental only to discover someone is already there. Cutthroat wine importer Charlie (Tom Hopper), who’s in town for business at the annual wine festival, has booked the place for the exact same week. With no recourse from the flat’s flighty owner (Emilio Solfrizzi) and no other available lodging, the pair are forced to stay together. They mix like oil and water as his uptight British sensibilities clash with her clumsy, messy emotional woes. But when they start duking it out for sole control, their true feelings for each other form an unexpected blend.
Johnson — who previously delivered another genial rom-com for the streamer (“Love, Guaranteed”) — and his collaborators gift the picture with a bright effervescence, not just in the material’s jovial jests but also in its crafty construction. On paper, Julie’s dastardly deeds to scare off Charlie (setting him up for an allergic reaction and sending him to jail) are far more harmful than his pranks toward her (diverting her luggage to an orphanage and making her think mushrooms are horse meat). Yet Johnson and editor Lee Haxall find a playful, lighthearted strength in these montages, heightening the comedic overtones. Canted angles, swirling camera moves and precisely timed audio stingers place us within the characters’ occasionally tormented psyches. Cinematographer José David Montero further elevates the outlandish in the frenetic, funny sequences and the melodramatic undertones of the budding romance. Effused lighting amps up the aesthetic appeal, as do the soft, warm sunsets serving up swoons.
While Johnson demonstrates a maturation in his visual dexterity, some of his material lacks a similar sense of growth. He knows how to brilliantly weave in third-act callbacks, but there’s a noticeable lack of confidence when it comes to showing, not telling about, the characters. The film frequently overstates itself, not trusting the audience to understand what we’re shown about Charlie’s flaws without verbalizing them. The inevitable conflict spiral between the two protagonists is hobbled when Charlie, who’s been painted as a wealthy, worrisome workaholic, nonchalantly and all too quickly accepts that his career is over.
Graham, who’s carving out a good niche for herself with the streamer’s serviceable genre-friendly fare (“The Holiday Calendar,” “Operation Christmas Drop”), embraces her character’s sweet, spitfire nature with grace and gumption, turning in adept work as a leading lady. She even gets to do some fun physical comedy (the restaurant scene where she’s awkwardly trying to suck wine out of a straw is a glorious highlight). Hopper’s dry delivery, swagger and good looks charm and disarm. He and Graham craft rooting interest with their chemistry and an innate likability that’s as endearing as it is entertaining.
At one point, pragmatic Charlie points out that the balcony Julie is so enamored with did not in fact inspire the Bard — it was constructed later, in a calculated bid to attract tourists to fair Verona. Though not nearly as sharp as the happy dagger in Shakespeare’s tragedy, the film’s brief willingness to interrogate its own crass commercialism is a bold, fascinating move. “Love in the Villa’s” building blocks may be as phony and manufactured as that balcony, but romantics will assuredly see and feel that the sentimental thematic resonance surrounding love and destiny comes from a genuine place.
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