Even the coldest-hearted of cynics – so, film critics – can admit that pop culture is undergoing a romantic-comedy boom. On the big screen (Crazy Rich Asians), and the small screen of your choice (Netflix’s Set It Up and To All the Boys I Loved Before), audiences are queuing up for the breezy pleasures of meet-cutes and love-conquers-all third acts.
But even the mooniest of romantics will have a hard time including Little Italy in this genre renaissance. There is no polite way of getting around it – the new Canadian film is drenched with an indigestible level of cheese, and assembled with a rom-com attitude defrosted from the 1980s.
For all of Little Italy’s myriad problems, though, the film does offer a solution to one long-standing challenge: What, exactly, should the industry do with – and what does it owe – Hayden Christensen?
Despite a natural talent to both charm and unnerve, the 37-year-old Vancouver-born actor has been riding out a rough deal ever since George Lucas cast him as the teenage Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels. It was so easy back in the early aughts to cut Christensen down, even though Lucas’s films spared no one – try to watch The Phantom Menace and not pray for the salvation of Natalie Portman or Ewan McGregor. Hollywood had no trouble washing its hands of Christensen, his legitimately impressive work in Life as a House, Shattered Glass and Factory Girl willfully ignored.
Which is both the reality of a cruel industry and a shame, because Christensen is still very much a leading-man-in-waiting.
While it may sound like faint praise to label Christensen the best part of Little Italy, the actor genuinely charms as Leo, one half of the film’s central couple whose path to romance is beset by squabbling relatives and director Donald Petrie’s idea of comedy. It’s Christensen’s first crack at the genre, and watching him strut around Toronto with a ridiculous level of brio, you wish that someone else – anyone else – would have given him a rom-com shot earlier in his post-Jedi career, when he was alternating between studio tentpoles (Jumper) and small-scale thrillers (Takers, American Heist).
"This wasn't a genre I usually look at, but my agent said it was a really well-crafted script, and it could be a good look," says Christensen, as he's shuffled from suite to suite in a downtown Toronto hotel this week. "My interests have been more in dramatic work, that's just what I'm compelled toward. It's a challenge to make someone laugh, so maybe I was daunted by the genre."
Dressed in a dark-blue suit, wearing chic glasses, and discreetly sipping a Canada Dry, Christensen cuts a sincere, pensive figure during our interview, at odds with the silliness of the film he’s promoting. If he thinks the end product is beneath him, he doesn’t let on one bit. And as the conversation continues, the surreality of what Christensen went through as a teenager begins to sink in.
Cast as Anakin at just 19, Christensen was thrown to the wolves (or Star Wars fans, as they prefer to be called), with only Lucas’s dialogue to shield him. Most would have left the film world altogether – some, like Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks) and Jake Lloyd (young Anakin), did. Christensen, though, decided to keep one foot in the industry and the other in his Uxbridge farm, about an hour north of Toronto.
“I’m there as much as I can – it’s a place I love, and was such a departure for me, as someone who grew up in the suburbs and spent a lot of time in city environments. But I was drawn there,” he says of the property, purchased about 10 years ago. "It was one of the better decisions I’ve ever made. It’s a great escape.”
As for what he was escaping, Christensen isn't coy.
"It was very much informed by my involvement in Star Wars, and how quickly things changed for me,” he says. “I just needed a way to check out. I was 19 when I did Star Wars and even though I thought I was mature enough to grasp fully what the experience was, I was still a kid. To get perspective on that, you need time to reflect, and an environment where I could do that.”
He quickly adds, "I don't know if it was a conscious realization. It was more like something where you're aware of what you're doing only after the fact. Something inside of me needed space. So, I went out and found space."
Today, Christensen spends his days there "getting his hands dirty”: planting truffle trees, designing every nook of the property, swinging a hammer to restore the 1850s farmhouse that sits on it (the shades of Life as a House aren’t lost on him). And while he was once eager to get involved with the other side of show business – in 2013, he helped launch Glacier Films, with an eye toward producing low- and micro-budget thrillers, a deal he’s no longer involved in – Christensen now wants his career to focus solely on performing.
"I do the work that I find interesting, and, sometimes to a fault, I don’t have enough thought toward my career,” he says, perhaps alluding to recent-ish efforts with such titles as Outcast and First Kill. "I do the work that I think is going to be rewarding and enjoyable. ... And right now, my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter is my biggest focus. That’s the best thing in my life.”
When he was younger, studying at the Actors Studio in New York and the drama program at Unionville High School in Markham, Ont., Christensen relied on an all-or-nothing mentality. “Part of committing to something is not giving yourself a fallback,” he recalls. "The best way to try to succeed is to not give myself any other option.”
Today, Hollywood owes Hayden Christensen every option available. And the rom-com renaissance is waiting.