For Woody Allen fans, the last few years have pretty much been a mixed bag. Those who have never been much for the eccentric filmmaker’s work probably gave up on him long ago, and justifiably so. But as the director has shed his New York shackles in favor of better opportunities across the pond, we’ve seen his ventures in London, Barcelona, and Paris reinvigorate him in a way New York hasn’t in a long time. Now, that doesn’t mean they’ve all been gems. For every Match Point, there’s been a You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. For every Vicky Cristina Barcelona there’s also a Scoop. As magical and illuminating as his Midnight In Paris was last year, that’s how scattered and remarkably disappointing To Rome With Love turns out to be. As always, with Allen it’s one great step forward, and two gigantic leaps backwards.
As the title suggests, the Eternal City of Rome is the location for what are basically four separate romantic vignettes, splashed with Allen’s usual, neurotic sense of humor. In fact, he’s basically telling the same jokes he’s been telling for decades, jack-hammered references to communists and political ideology, sprinkled with the name dropping of a rare artistic figure nobody knows or cares about. At their worst, Allen’s movies are like an aging narcissist who laughs at their own jokes, but rarely has anything of value to add to any conversation. In that way it makes one wonder if Allen is self aware enough to have made fun of himself a little bit.
Ellen Page is at the center of one of the two stories that feature American casts, and she’s like every Woody Allen movie given physical form. She’s a vapid, trite, epic egotist with flashes of insight hidden beneath a shroud of bullpucky. She plays Monica, an American who heads to Rome at the behest of her best friend, Sally(a woefully misused Greta Gerwig). What’s weird about it is Sally is sure to the core of her being that her architect boyfriend, Jack(Jesse Eisenberg), will fall in love with Monica. Of course she’s right, and Jack, troubled by his growing feelings towards her, gets some blunt advice from his architectural idol, John, played by Alec Baldwin. There’s a mystery at the center of this story that Allen keeps deliberately unclear, and that’s a large part of the reason why it’s his most inspired comic bit where everything else falls terribly flat.
Allen aims for a touch of whimsy in each of his little Roman love letters, but the rest are so poorly constructed and underdeveloped they’d be better seen on mute, so we can just sit back and stare at the picturesque city in peace. The other American story consumes the bulk of the film, and it’s probably the biggest fossil of them all. The talented Alison Pill plays Hayley, an American who arrives in Rome with hopes of a a storybook romance the type you see in movies. She gets her wish in record time, meeting a handsome Italian lawyer named Michelangelo(Flavio Parenti). Allen makes his first appearance in front of the camera in six years as Hayley’s father, Jerry, who arrives with his wife(Judy Davis), to meet the in-laws before the crazy kids tie the knot. In a decidedly Allen-esque twist, Michelangelo’s father has a singing voice that would make Pavarotti curl up into the fetal position. A former record producer, Jerry sees big money in the man’s voice, but first he has to break him of his incredible stage fright. The way Jerry does it is utterly ridiculous, but it makes for a funny initial gag that quickly wears down to the nub and becomes more of an irritating diversion.
Then again, the entire film is little more than a trifle, and the two Italian segments get barely a hint of attention. Married couple Antonio(Alessandro Tiberi) and Milli(Alessandra Mastronardi) find themselves separated just before they are to meet his family for the first time. He ends up with a gorgeous and spicy prostitute played by Penelope Cruz, who hilariously tarts it up while posing as his wife. Milli, on the other hand, who is the picture of saintly womanhood, spends the day fawning over an Italian actor(Antonio Albanese)who just wants to get in her pants.
Allen tries to make a serious point in the most surreal vignette of all, with Roberto Benigni playing an ordinary schmuck who suddenly gets famous for absolutely no reason. He sees his simple life now the leading story in all the newspapers; his every acquaintance the stuff of scandal; and his opinion holding more weight than elected officials. Benigni actually makes for just the right guy for the part, as he’s always been something of a globally recognized clown. Allen doesn’t actually have any real insights into our celebrity culture, however. We all get what he’s trying to say about people like the Kardashians and what their undeserved fame says about us as a whole….but, what else? Where’s Allen’s supposedly trademark wit? It’s simply nowhere to be found.
For any other director, a misfire like this could easily be explained away, but when Allen fails he fails hard. When he’s not properly motivated, as appears to be the case here, his films look, feel and sound archaic. He still has no problem pulling good performances from a cast any director would salivate over. Alec Baldwin is clearly enjoying himself, and so is Ellen Page for that matter. Penelope Cruz’s two sexiest performances in recent years have been in Allen movies, and she’s incredibly hot here in her tight, hoochie red dress. Jesse Eisenberg would seem to be a natural, and if this were any other Allen film he probably would be. But he fades opposite the affable Baldwin and the off-kilter Page performance.
You’ll be hard pressed to want to leave, though, as Rome is an incomparably beautiful city when captured on film. From the Coliseum to the Trevi Fountain, every image could be a postcard or a desktop screensaver. The stories themselves may be pointless and fleeting, but I wouldn’t be surprised if airline tickets to Rome see a spike in business.