Something is really wrong with me.
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are the Queens of the Be's. Now we are not talking about the buzzing bumbles that squirt honey makings from their bottoms and sting the royal jelly out of you. And this is not a reference to Linnea Quigley, Regina Carrol, Jewel Shepard, or any other undressing Denison of the lower racks of your local Blockbuster (or non-stop repeat showings on Cinemax and/or Showtime). You see, everything about the Olsen's life and their philosophy can be described in terms of that two-letter word for existence: "be." As in—Be Smart, Be Strong, Be Free, Be Creative, Be Friendly, Be Cool, Be Yourself, Be Responsible, Be Involved, Be Happy, Be Inquisitive, Be Helpful, Be Productive, Be Fashionable, and Be Positive. These mass marketing dominions have attitudes struck with such unbelievable good cheer and personalities so beaming they outshine the Northern lights. They are glittering gal prizes of packaging and promotion with an entire cottage industry built up around them. Actually, it's more like a Manhattan skyscraper. When in Rome is yet another perfect example of their fresh, inoffensive form of impish implication and safe sermonizing. Even if it is as weak as your grandmother's chamomile tea when it comes to plot and characterization, they intend to win you over with their P.M.A. (that's positive MEDIA attitude for all you Carnegie people out there). And they succeed.
Facts of the Case
Charli and her twin sister Leila are off to Rome to work for Derek Hammond and his Virgin International style hyper-global-mega-corp, Hammond Industries. Just like Richard Branson or Arthur Fortune (oh…Arthur FORTUNE…), Derek dips his wick in all manner of high-powered media enterprises. But he has truly made a name for his company in the competitive enterprise of covering cadavers, otherwise known as high fashion. And our cheerful cherubic charmers are as happy as Halston to be at the center of all this Italian history and style (apparently, their copy of Rand McNally's didn't include a listing for Milan).
The first day on the job, they are introduced to the rest of the internationally diverse but racially suspect interns with whom they will share copy room space (one question: couldn't a sista' or a playa get a Ham Corp. hook-up?). There is a goofy Italian boy named Paulo, a quirky Asian named Nobu, and since the French intern quit before even getting to the airport, a German named Heidi is along for added comic value, since the Germanic people in general are well known for being the global center for wit and humor.
After one day on the job, everything is a disaster and our heroines find themselves placed on double secret totally Melvin probation by the evil manager of Hammond's Italian office, Mr. Tortellini. Naturally, when given one last chance, they completely mess it up and find themselves fired. As they start to feel the painful gnaw of guilt and regret for how badly things got fouled up, along comes the rich rogue owner, Mr. H himself, and invites them to his Mediterranean seaside villa for a weekend of sun, surf, and chastising. Turns out it is all an elaborate rouse on Derek's part to get Leila meshing with Ham's good-for-nothing nephew, Skeet Ulrich…sorry, Nick Nobody. As with most ten boy summer romances, Leila and Nick develop a begrudging almost attraction, which means that Nick is all over her like parmesan on a pizza and Leila is practicing her "Dear John" routine. Sick and tired of all the juvenile cheerfulness and hormones flowing around him, Hammy sends the gang back to Rome and to work.
And suddenly they are the most efficient, effective crew in the entire organization. As the weeks roll by, Paulo and Charli discover a mutual affinity for public displays of affection, Leila keeps a cattle prod near her cubicle to zap Nick whenever he's feeling frisky, and Mr. Tortellini seems to be up to something underhanded (from an Italian? No way!). When a selection of the spring's latest potato sacks gets hijacked before Elsa Klensch has a chance to label them "pedestrian," it looks like perfectly coiffed and combed heads will roll again. But photographer in training Charli and her far more qualified than most of the designers hanging around Soho bars drowning their sorrows in mai-tais sister Leila have a brilliant, near original idea. They decide to conduct their own fashion shoot with their own fashions! With less than three days to go and no visible skills as cutters or seamstresses, they head off into Tom Hilfiger territory, except not quite so openly gay. Does our dynamic duo of dress doodlers along with their fellow sweat shoppers succeed? Can they catch Tortellini before he sells the whole mess to Donna Karen at a discount? One thing's for sure, Mary-Kate and Ashley will be smiling all the way to the foreign exchange, molto lira in hand.
Nobody on the planet earth or in the so far as yet uncharted reaches of the galaxy is as outlandishly brimming with optimism as Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Here are two girls who find a rainy day beautiful, a streak of bad luck a learning experience, and view horrible, crippling disfigurement as a chance for long-needed personal reflection. Dagnabbit, nothing can or could bring these groovy girls down off of their super smiley fluffy cotton candy cloud nine. They bubble like a homemade root beer and fire laser beams of charisma off the screen and directly into your jaded heart. They encompass all that is puddle wonderful and mud luscious about youth and beauty. They are everything to everyone. They are so great, so mighty in their all inspiring presence that…
Not buying any of this, huh? Too bad, because millions of young people are.
Honestly, there is a refreshing attitude that exudes from these media darlings, perky beyond their allotted limit and sweet without being overly saccharine or sluttish. The truth is, they are really good role models. Perhaps WELL MANUFACTURED AND MARKETED role models, but good ones nonetheless. Parents around the world would sell their Cabriolets to have daughters this in tune with themselves, the world, and their social responsibility. MK/A would never dream of lighting a cat's tail on fire, cheating on a physics final, or pouring buckets of pig blood all over the prom queen. In the Highlights for Children hierarchy, they are so beyond the asexual behavioral dichotomy of those bland bozos Gallant and Goofus that said tired twosome should simply run away and live with the Timbertoes. They are young ladies who give a hoot, just say "no," and consider soup a good food. It's just about gosh heck dam darn impossible to hate them. Not that they don't offer a great deal of disingenuous reasons to wish them into the cornfield. Here are a couple of young ladies who basically sat on the set of the show Full House and filled their diapers while Bob Saget made wounded hound faces and Dave Coulier worked on his Hair Bear Bunch impressions. Now, several reruns and reasonings later, their product overpopulates the planet, giving Bill Gates a run for his monopoly. They mint hundreds of Mary-Kate and Ashley offerings: fashion, makeup, movies, and music, to name a few. And in a dozen years, when time and talent have worn them to the nub, they will simply expand into personal feminine moisturizers, disposal dress shields, and the ever-popular MK&A Home Botox Injection Kit.
It's okay to hate them for their business plan. But it's impossible to despise them for their intentions. When in Rome is piffle, but it's decent, hard working piffle and that's more than can be said for most entertainment aimed at the younger generation. Usually offensively bland or pre-determinedly moralizing, no one ever lets teens act or speak like normal people. Sure, kids like weirdo stuff and occasionally make personal decisions that rank up there with Chamberlain's support of the Nazi regime and Red Fusion Dr. Pepper. But on occasions (usually revolving around the request for food, money, or transportation), they reconnect with the planet Earth and have some insight into their lives and human integrity. When in Rome is all about understanding yourself, expanding your horizons, and getting in touch with your own inner Lauren Ezersky. Mary-Kate and Ashley adhere to the theory that life is a banquet, but they would never say that most poor suckers are starving to death. They would simply smile and feel that many of the emotionally and socially malnourished just haven't been offered any MK-n-A MSG to re-season their deep fried anxiety. One pinch of these pre-legal Spice gals and they'd feel the need to glut on everyday existence like a good life gourmand.
When in Rome is a merry mediocrity, saved by the odd filmmaking choices and the "win at any costs" enthusiasm of our dappled damsels. The choice to have an incredibly international cast is an interesting one. When several of your actors are so English hampered that their dialogue must be re-looped in what sounds like literally dozens of times, it offers an air of authenticity and a viable explanation for some of the really dumb things they end up saying. It's interesting that girly boy Nick so embodies the character of a pissed off spoiled American brat that his appearance onscreen threatens the carefully constructed Eurotrash balance. The script, by Michael Swerdlick, is simultaneously crappy and happy, plowing through a standard three-act story arch so mechanically that you can actually feel the plot points break in cinematic real time, as when Act One stalls and Act Two plods into gear. But unless they are improvising (and it's hard to imagine Mary-K and Ash coming up with anything solo except an accurate ad campaign), he gives these teen titans some refreshingly frank and honest dialogue. They are not afraid to point out their flaws, understand their limitations, and dream within set, obtainable parameters. It will be hard for you to recall the last time you heard a teen refer to themselves, and their hopes and dreams, in such rational terms. Yes, these girls are normal. They are into hot femmy boys, funky dunk music, and credit collapsing shopping sprees. But they also have an inspirational handle on their own piecemeal, evolving identities.
Aside from all its formula flaws and three act antics, Mary-Kate and Ashley: When in Rome is plain good fun. Just when it threatens to get smarmy it throws out a kind-hearted message, or a nod to individual discipline and accountability, and you're instantly won over again. So what if they make constantly dumb Dora remarks about how Russell Crowe and Gladiator taught them everything they needed to know about the Coliseum. Or that the comedy resorts to I Love Lucy slip-shot slapstick when Charli is taught the proper way to toss a pizza. At least we don't have organ grinders with monkeys dressed in red and white checked sailor suits crawling around Mary-Kate and Ashley's shoulders asking for scungili. You can't believe anything that's going on, which in turn, allows you to happily accept everything as consistent and ultra realistic. This is a fairytale world where high school students strive to save their jobs, their boss, and themselves (for marriage), all in the name of personal dignity and a chance at being mature and responsible. It is stretching the confines of believability that anyone as addicted to glitter and square glasses as the Olsens are would honestly know a thing or two about a fashion thing or two, or that the character of Charli could pronounce Ansel Adams, let alone know who he is. But When in Rome doesn't rely on a strict adherence to the truth. It's like a romance novel for young girls, except without all the ribald adjectives.
Artistically, the movie is a junior jumble of styles, tones, and competing cinematic claims. Director Steve Purcell employs something new in his filming technique, something called "the seasick cam." During close-up shots, the frame begins to shift, tilting ever so slightly up and down, just like the image one might see out of a porthole on a cruise ship. The sway is ever so gentle, but obvious AND continuous. People who complained about motion-related nausea after sitting through a screening of The Blair Witch Project (come on, admit it now—it was the movie that made you retch, not the handheld camera juggling) will find this a subtler, but equally queasy experience. There is also an attempt to infer photography through the use of grainy, black and white still framing, and the occasional use of digital and video images, to hopefully sell this travelogue as a sightseeing "you are there" wow now experience. Unfortunately, you will need a brainpan like a hard drive and a retina as strong as a mule deer to follow the rapid fire editing and overlapping continuity flubs. Purcell ain't no Fellini. He's not even a Fulci. But he does keep the pace brisk and the atmosphere light.
As a DVD, Mary-Kate and Ashley: When in Rome is like one big press kit and catalog for the burgeoning bank accounts of these sibling CEOs. Beginning when you open the stupid, mentally deficient Warner-style snapper case, you are struck with a coupon book filled with ads and offers for the following:
• 50+ (!) VHS titles, spanning their entire growth spurt
And you haven't even played the darned disc yet. Inside, on the digital menu, you will find a "trailers" option. Mistakenly click on it and you will see another dozen or so "commercials" for Mary-Kate and Ashley products as well as lame as life Warner's kiddie titles. Talk about your hard sell!
As for the image and sound, well, let's just say that you won't be wowing the local cinefile with this DVD transfer. While not made on the cheap, the mix of stocks and the plethora of ancillary material make the picture look soft and fuzzy. Occasionally everything snaps into bright, sharp focus, and the imagery looks very nice with bright colors. But overall, it's a full frame feast of miscellaneous digital issues. Sonically, the film starts off with a bang (as do the stereo surround speakers) when the B-52's song "Roam" blasts along to the jump cuts. But overall, there is no real immersion. And for every pop classic, there is a plethora of woefully bad manufactured slop music that is ladled on like sticky syrup to make the wee ones wet themselves. It's drippy and dumb and is truly the worst thing about this title. Along with the mini-mall of merchandise under the trailers section, we also get two very interesting bonuses. First there is an alternate ending, which, when watched, underscores how close When in Rome came to imploding in a fiasco of Madonna-esque proportions. It cheapens any good will or nature in the film and was wisely cut for a more by-the-book but true to the emotions resolution. We also get a ten-minute home movie style look at the making of the film. It's interesting to see that the international cast really do speak in painfully awkward broken English and Mary-Kate and Ashley are the quintessential salespeople, working the cast and crew like Shriners at a Veterans Day parade.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
OH COME ON! Let's be realistic for a moment. This is Mary-Kate and Ashley OLSEN we are talking about. They are not the Barbi Twins, or even the Gabors. These girls aren't about talent, they're about smart marketing research and product placement and saturation. It's impossible to imagine that any power broker with an eye for aptitude saw the drooling, fooling infants on that mediocre family muck called Full House and decided to build an entire empire around them. They are empty, overly wholesome fodder that only give off the "aura" of being hip and fashionable. Buried inside their Bebe clothing and Style Channel hairdos are vacuous voids whom suffer from an advanced case of non-existent personalities. It's well known that twins can share character and emotional traits. Must be hard for MK/A to divvy up the brain as well. When in Rome is not entertaining, it is cloying claptrap. It turns Italy into a backlot and its history into a punchline. Sure, it may seem empowering and down to earth, but just because treacle covered cow stomach sounds like a gourmet dish doesn't change the fact that it's still sugary sweet tripe. Somewhere in the United States, right now, there is a child or children watching a Mary-Kate and Ashley video, listening to a CD, or reading one of their propaganda primers and mindlessly enjoying themselves. Didn't we, as a nation learn anything from the Barney scare of the early '90s? Or that heinous influx of Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers? The President would be better advised to stand down from Saddam's doorstep and send an elite group of Navy SEALs to the Olsen home pronto. Honestly, didn't he vow to stop terrorism on our homeland soil first?
No, When in Rome is not great cinema. No, Mary-Kate is not another Tatum O'Neal and Ashley an heiress to the acting glitter that rewarded Anna Paquin. Nothing about their empire of empowerment will leave you in awe, unless you stop and consider the amount of scratch these barely twentysomethings are pulling down. No, for all its unimpressive blandness, When in Rome is an entertaining throwback to a time when children's television was not preachy or teachy, where it told solid stories with simple, effective writing. Add to this the selfless message of the humanistic hive of self-esteem Be's and you just can't help but appreciate what these gals are doing. They're not strutting around like well-worn sidewalk sluts trying to sell their semi-child porn sex for a hit single and a shot on the Billboard charts. They don't extol tolerance and dedication and then slack off for a weekend of smoking and joking with fellow teen celebs. And they aren't trying to break their good girl image be appearing on screen half dressed sulky around an actor who surpasses them in age by multiples of three. No, Mary-Kate and Ashley want to teach young girls (and the boys who find them foxy) that if you simply believe in yourself and work at it, you will achieve your goals and live your dreams. Now just what is so wrong with that?
Mary-Kate and Ashley: When in Rome is found not guilty by the Court and is free to go. The Olsens proper are given special recognition by the Court for taking the notion of "role model" to heart and doing a fine, respectable job of it.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Behind-the-Scenes Featurette
Review content copyright © 2003 Bill Gibron; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.