How can you tell you’re watching one of Hollywood’s new-style romantic fairy tales? Because it’s crammed with swoons, old-fashioned love songs, and sweetheart settings like the Empire State Building or the canals of Venice? No. Because it keeps telling you it’s crammed with those things. In the new romantic comedy ONLY YOU (TriStar, PG), the heroine, played by Marisa Tomei, stares at the TV set in tears as she watches Ezio Pinza sing ”Some Enchanted Evening.” Later, in Rome, she meets the man of her dreams, and as they’re strolling down the street making lovey-dovey eyes at each other, they pass … an old black jazzman playing ”Some Enchanted Evening” on his saxophone. At which point you may want to shout at the screen, ”I get it! It’s romantic!” Movies like Only You and its obvious model, Sleepless in Seattle, are less true romances than they are collections of romantic signifiers. They have all the conviction — and all the charm — of a bumbling suitor who has memorized everything he’s going to say on a first date.
Tomei plays a beautiful young schoolteacher who’s such a fervent believer in grand passion that her name is Faith. When Faith was just a kid, a Ouija board informed her that she’d meet her soulmate, and that his name would be Damon Bradley. But now she’s about to be married to someone else — and he is, of course, an unworthy yuppie-scum brat. (How unworthy? He’s a podiatrist.) Ten days before the wedding, Faith has a phone conversation with a man she has never met and learns that his name is … Damon Bradley. Convinced that destiny has finally brought her into Mr. Right’s orbit (even though she has never laid eyes on him), she follows him to Venice and Rome, where she crosses paths with a puppy-eyed stranger (Robert Downey Jr.) who listens to her story and announces, ”I’m Damon Bradley.” Overnight, they fall in love. But is he really Damon Bradley?
Like Nora Ephron in Sleepless in Seattle, the makers of Only You — screenwriter Diane Drake and director Norman Jewison — envelop a postcard-thin plot in a haze of self-conscious sentimental whimsy; the characters spend more time talking about being romantic than they do actually being so. The movie presents itself as the second coming of Roman Holiday, but it’s closer in spirit to The Love Boat with great Italian settings. (If you’re going to make a luscious-looking travelogue romance, it pays to have Sven Nykvist as your cinematographer.) The talented Tomei has come down with a bad (one hopes temporary) case of reveling in her own adorableness. Sporting a swank new Phoebe Cates hairdo, she looks maah-velous, but she also bats her Bambi eyes for the camera, filling Faith with so much tender, wistful longing that just watching this performance is enough to give you a sugar rush. Downey is more restrained, a thinking woman’s sex symbol, but his role is too underwritten to let him display much of his trademark ironic spark.
Only You receives a welcome jolt of comic energy when Billy Zane shows up as a hilariously laid-back California stud — also claiming to be Damon Bradley — who’s like Jim Morrison gone disco. There’s a reason this funny episode clicks: It’s virtually the only time the film acknowledges that there’s something fundamentally silly about the notion of a woman romantically obsessed with a man she’s never met. Trying to revive the cornball integrity of old-fashioned Hollywood love stories, the filmmakers have instead resurrected a kind of preeningly coy schoolgirl dippiness. This is ”romance” so abstract it might have been made for virgins. C