Everything you need to know about Little Italy is in the poster. It went viral this year, perfectly attuned to the internet’s beige fixation on the ordinary. It shows an uncomfortable Hayden Christensen, flummoxed by the series of life choices that have lead him to this point with his co-star Emma Roberts giving the smile that’s been coaxed out of a child for the annual Christmas card photo. It suggests something of a rom-com stuck squarely in the past. It is clearly a facsimile of Donald Petrie’s other work—Mystic Pizza. So, yes, the director has also made a pizza movie with Emma Roberts’s aunt, Julia Roberts. Now that we’ve looked a moment too long into the abyss, let’s continue dissecting the year’s most harebrained comedy.
The shirts in the poster represent the crux of the story. These two characters grew up together in a very competitive environment. They come from absurd stereotyped Italian families with their kitchens seated next door to each other. The film sets out to be about their heritage within the Little Italy sect of Toronto. Moving into adulthood, Emma goes off and becomes a classically trained chef at a Gordon Ramsay kitchen, where she gets to hold two loaves of bread to her head and exclaim, “I’m a moron sandwich!” just like the popular Ramsay GIF you post on Facebook every time someone shares a food post. It’s good that she’s gotten the training in the classical tradition; it pays off when at some point in the film she puts figs on pizza and everyone is surprised.
Of course, there is a great awkwardness between them in the promotional shot, although it deceptively shows their roles. Hayden plays this hot-shot son of an Italian cook who works nights at a bar called Luigi’s. He’s got a bad fake tan and a poor accent, so you understand just how Italian he is. He seems to have the momentum within the relationship, the guy who stayed home and waited for the girl next door to return but slept around in the meantime. He has a horribly clichéd roommate who has also kept him occupied in the meantime. When Emma comes home and goes to the bar, Hayden’s got to challenge her to some pickup soccer in the rain, and when there’s talk about getting wet, one of her friend’s says she’ll get wet, because that’s comedy.
There is the suggestion this is just the usual rote early-2000s comedy. Oh boy, this cute girl really drives this guy wild, he crosses his arms in disbelief of their fated relationship. Everything goes according to the plan of every other film you’ve seen from that era. It’s a bit of catch and release between the two, alternating between their timid expression of feelings and constant, retching reminders that this is an Italian affair. It does not strike a single chord of authenticity there, without any best jokes, because it doesn’t have any of heartfelt value anyway. There’s a point where Hayden’s family gets their place raided by police due to mistaking oregano for weed while prepping pizzas, and then he gets molested by a female cop during the bust. The elders of their families fall in love and have corny romantic setups in a Starbucks, where they know no other Italian will ever go, and they can make jokes about Beyoncé sounding like Bianca. The comedy comes full-circle in an obtuse way at the end, paying off the series of attempted jokes, by essentially repeating all of them one after another.
Thus the poster sells us exactly what we’ll be getting. Our expectations are sufficiently lowered here—essentially down to zero. We know exactly how this film will spend our time. The entire cast seems to follow the shots to the next shooting location, standing around awkwardly waiting for the next opportunity to sling their assigned stereotype, for what—a laugh, a groan? It delivers neither, just an empty absence of laughter and joy, just like our actors and their fake grins, unsure if we’ll ever feel again. Our editor says we must score, even if we slip into the abyss and cannot escape from the crushing weight of a pizza comedy, and as such, we’ll have to give the poster 5 stars for its accuracy and the film 1 star due to its most interesting aspect being advertising that warns against it.
As we ended the film, heading to bed less perplexed than acutely aware we got exactly what was promised, my fiancé’s response best sums it up: “I understand as a movie critic you have to go down some dark paths, and I hope going forward you’ll make some better life choices.”