It’s a bit ironic that the righteous maiden of “Love in the Villa” yearns for a truly romantic vacation in Italy, since her fairy tale has been cobbled together by Netflix’s virtually proprietary algorithm. She takes a part of the hapless female lead, she adds a handsome but cantankerous gentleman, whether from a charming European background, and mixes it with a generous touch of mischief that forces them to fall head over heels in love. Yet the blessed surprise that awaits even the most cynical audience of writer-director Mark Steven Johnson’s romantic comedy is that within the fabricated product lies a heartening appeal to their sensitive 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). Her excursion to Verona, Italy includes everything from top restaurant reservations to themed tours, all while staying in a villa that overlooks the balcony that inspired the famous scene from Shakespeare’s play. However, despite allowing for a hint of spontaneity, Julie didn’t anticipate that Brandon would chicken out on her and leave her just before they left. Instead of moping around in Minneapolis, she decides to go on vacation alone.
After a hellish flight marked by delays, turbulence, screaming babies and lost luggage, as well as a chaotic trip in a Fiat, Julie arrives at the picturesque tourist-filled corridor of La Villa Romantica. Ella ready to relax before embarking on her solo adventure, she walks into her rental only to find that someone is already there. Ruthless wine importer Charlie (Tom Hopper), who is in town on business for the annual wine festival, has booked the place for the exact same week. With no resources from the flat’s fickle owner (Emilio Solfrizzi) and no other accommodation available, the couple is forced to stay together. They mix like oil and water as his strained British sensibilities collide with her awkward and messy emotional issues. But when they begin to fight for sole control, their true feelings for each other form an unexpected mix.
Johnson, who previously delivered another incredible rom-com for the streamer (“Love Guaranteed”), and his collaborators give the film a brilliant effervescence, not only in the material’s jovial banter but also in its witty construction. On paper, Julie’s cowardly actions to scare Charlie (set him up for an allergic reaction and send him to jail) are far more damaging than her pranks on her (diverting his luggage to an orphanage and making him think mushrooms are horse meat). ). However, Johnson and editor Lee Haxall find a light-hearted, playful force in these montages, which enhances the comedic undertones. Tilted angles, rotating camera movements, and precisely timed audio stings put us inside the occasionally tormented psyches of the characters. Director of photography José David Montero elevates the quirkier even further in the frantic, hilarious sequences and melodramatic undertones of the budding romance. Effusive lighting amplifies the aesthetic appeal, as do soft, warm sunsets that cause fades.
While Johnson shows maturity in her visual prowess, some of her 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, the characters. The film frequently exaggerates itself, not trusting the audience to understand what we are shown about Charlie’s flaws without verbalizing them. The inevitable spiral of conflict between the two leads is stymied when Charlie, who has been described as a worryingly rich workaholic, nonchalantly and too quickly accepts that his career is over.
Carving out a nice niche for himself with the streamer’s helpful genre fare (“The Holiday Calendar,” “Operation Christmas Drop”), Graham embraces his character’s sweet, sprightly nature with grace and common sense, turning into a work skilled as a first actress. She even gets to do some hilarious physical comedy (the restaurant scene where she clumsily tries to suck wine through a straw is a glorious highlight). Hopper’s dry delivery, arrogance, and good looks charm and disarm. He and Graham create an ingrained interest with their chemistry and innate likeability that is as endearing as it is entertaining.
At one point, the pragmatic Charlie points out that the balcony Julie is so in love with didn’t actually inspire the Bard: it was built later, in a calculated attempt to attract tourists to beautiful Verona. Although not as sharp as the happy dagger in Shakespeare’s tragedy, the film’s brief willingness to question its own crude commercialism is a bold and fascinating move. The building blocks of “Love in the Villa” may be as fake and fabricated as that balcony, but romantics will surely see and feel that the sentimental thematic resonance surrounding love and destiny comes from a genuine place.