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Hayden Christensen and Emma Roberts star in Little Italy.

Ben Mark Holzberg/Entertainment One

  • Little Italy
  • Directed by: Donald Petrie
  • Written by: Steve Galluccio and Vinay Virmani
  • Starring: Hayden Christensen, Emma Roberts and Andrea Martin
  • Classification: PG; 102 minutes

rating

For a small Canadian film released at the end of a long, hot, difficult summer, Little Italy asks a lot of its audience.

To start, it demands anyone with even a cursory grasp of Toronto geography to accept that the city’s Little Italy neighbourhood encompasses not only its factual confines of College Street West, but also Christie Pits Park a kilometre and a half north, the Distillery District on the other side of town, and what appear to be blocks of New York City’s Mulberry Street. It asks us to believe there is undeniable chemistry – hotter than a fresh-outta-the-oven pizza pie, dio mio! – between its two leads, Emma Roberts and Hayden Christensen, who deserve so much better than the wan caricatures they are stuck with. And it practically begs us to buy its cheesy – cheesier-than-nonna’s-homemade-mozzarella, uffa! – dialogue, complete with jokes that employ random Italian interjections in place of punchlines. Santo cielo! (See?)

Mostly, though, Little Italy asks us to be entertained by a movie whose idea of both romance and comedy is permanently stuck in 1985, like a moldy slice of gabagool, oh marone! (Okay, I’ll stop. Not that Little Italy does…)

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Director Donald Petrie knows how to craft tolerable – even passably enjoyable – Hollywood rom-coms, thanks to his work on everything from Miss Congeniality to How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days to Mystic Pizza (yes, we’ll get to that). But Little Italy is either a remarkable act of misguided self-parody – a work so subversive that any trace of artistic irony ends up being invisible to the naked eye – or a solid case that its filmmaker fundamentally misunderstands the modern world.

As Little Italy unfolds – most definitely not like a slice of pizza, because that would be insulting to pizza – it’s clear that it’s the latter case. With zero self-awareness and even less self-respect, Petrie and his Canadian screenwriters Steve Galluccio and Vinay Virmani happily reheat a Blockbuster Video outlet’s worth of VHS-era rom-com tropes, all while deploying racial stereotypes that make John Hughes’s Long Duk Dong seem thoughtful and nuanced. (One low-light: The appearance of a restaurant called Korma Sutra.)

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Alyssa Milano and Adam Ferrara also star alongside Emma Roberts in this rom-com.

Christos Kalohoridis/Entertainment One

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The film wants audiences to accept that Toronto's Little Italy neighbourhood includes the Distillery District, on the other side of town.

Jasper Savage/Entertainment One

At least the central narrative is inoffensive enough, with aspiring chef Nikki (Roberts) returning from Britain to her hometown Toronto neighbourhood while she waits for a work visa to come through. Almost immediately, she runs into childhood pal Leo (Christensen), who she’s been estranged from since their parents opened rival pizza restaurants. Naturally, it’s only a matter of time before the two discover they were made for each other, complete with all sorts of third-tier rom-com nonsense courtesy of their loved ones (including the misused talents of Danny Aiello, Alyssa Milano, and Andrea Martin, the latter-most happily transporting her Big Fat Greek Wedding shtick from Athens to Napoli).

This isn’t to denigrate the structure of rom-coms, or ethnically specific comedies – when done well, they can be joyous, breezy affairs (see Crazy Rich Asians). But Little Italy is less a film than a shoddily assembled collection of clichés – there’s a rainstorm-set reunion, an impossibly well-appointed rooftop dinner for two, a don’t-you-dare-get-on-that-plane climax – that would feel at home in a genre spoof such as David Wain’s They Came Together. But only if Wain had lost his dang mind.

Perhaps Little Italy was designed with good intentions – to celebrate the bonds of family, the passion of young romance, the photogenic potential of disparate Toronto neighbourhoods, the power of our federal film funding agency (Telefilm Canada, which gets a big thank you in the end credits, contributed $3.97-million to the production). Or maybe its creators just saw an opportunity to quickly hack together a film by exploiting legitimate talent and audiences' fond, foggy memories of Petrie’s own Mystic Pizza (Roberts at one point dons a “Slice of Heaven” tee, just like her aunt Julia did in that legitimately charming 1988 movie).

A slice of advice, then: Take the film’s 102 minutes to visit the actual Little Italy and enjoy a leisurely meal. Or make your own pie at home. Or stay home and do nothing. Basta!