Harkening back to Italian neo-realism, the romance of Naples is alive in "While We Were Here," the latest film from writer-director Kat Coiro. Considerably more watchable than her pratfall-driven debut "L!fe Happens," the picture is significantly more sober-minded, concerning the marriage of pretty blond Jane (Kate Bosworth) and taciturn, mature Leonard (Iddo Goldberg). They arrive in the city and, almost as if protocol, consume each other in bed. As she retreats to the lavatory, she gazes in the mirror and wraps her arm around her stomach mournfully. It's not hard to see that, while young, Jane has lost something.
Leonard departs for concert rehearsals during the day, leaving Jane alone to swim in her thoughts. However, when they are together, it's not as if she's receiving much intellectual nourishment. She waxes philosophically about David Foster Wallace, but he's more of a meat-and-potatoes type, quite literally in one occasion when he praises English steak in favor of Italian food. She decides to dive headfirst into the recordings of her late grandmother, whom she had interviewed regarding a life led amongst battlefields in Europe, one that, it's suggested, was filled with not so much love as exploration and experimentation. The boys, the boys.
When visiting local ruins, the twentysomething Jane asks a "local" boy for directions. His sun-kissed tan and ethnic sensuality is misleading, for he is also a visiting American, albeit for very different reasons. Caleb (Jamie Blackley) tags along on her journey, revealing that it's his nineteenth birthday, and his slim shoulders and calamari-tail tanktop reveal nineteen whole years of naivete and brash inexperience. Caleb is a world traveler with a convoluted academic backstory that has taken him first to Italy and soon to every Eastern European country he can visit given his vagabond means.
Athletic and beautiful, Caleb is sensuality personified, his rogueish smile and terrible jokes revealing an intellectual curiosity seemingly alien to Jane. She is fresh-faced and youthful, porcelain but tough, too wise to immediately fall for him, but too green to deny his charms outright. Wielding her wedding ring as if it hails from Oa, she keeps this plucky boy at a distance, but he proves admirably fearless. He meets Leonard head-on, not resisting the urge to tone down his charm, not afraid to disagree with this older romantic rival. Leonard won't laugh at Jane's ego-deflating jokes, revealing himself to be a humorless prig, but Caleb gladly cackles. His youth almost feels permanent.
Coiro's film is a punch, no doubt, but one severely pulled. Bosworth is an undeniable screen presence, and she smiles with her entire body, seducing the camera with considerable ease. It's far too clear that she's a poor match for matinee-idol handsome Leonard, as Goldberg broods and blusters with the gentle rhythm of a troubled gentleman. Leonard is all shoulders and suits, classy but hopelessly antiquated. Caleb, sinewy limbs and troublemaking smile, is just far too much of a mismatch. The picture is presented in gorgeous black and white, but his scenes would have you convinced it were colorized. In fact, he's only a few degrees removed from the popular Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and would serve as the male analog had he not represented such a gamine threat to Jane's already faltering marriage.
"While We Were Here" takes place in modern day, though its location, classical music score and fashion sense (it feels as if Leonard was conceived wearing a skinny black tie) scream a previous era. The intention is to mimic Italian Neo-realism, though "While We Were Here" stays concrete when it needs magic, it zigs where it should zag. Jane is too sensible, and Bosworth too smart an actress to ever suggest it would ever be a difficult decision, not so much Leonard versus Caleb, but rather a clash of ideals. As an affecting romance between a woman caught between two worlds, it very nearly sticks the landing. As a showcase for Ms. Bosworth, never better, it's often sublime. [B+]