To Rome with Love (United States/Italy/Spain, 2012)July 06, 2012
Once upon a time, calling a movie "lesser Woody Allen" might be considered a slap in the face. Now, it's more-or-less expected. In the last decade, Allen has directed two good movies: Match Point and Midnight in Paris. Everything else has been mediocre. To Rome with Love falls on the lower end of the "mediocre" spectrum, if not below it altogether, and may be Allen's biggest misstep since 1991's Shadows and Fog. The movie functions as a Valentine to Rome (the latest European city to receive Allen's loving treatment, filmed as if it was a post card come to life) and an homage to the Italian films he loved as a young filmmaker. This trait, unfortunately, causes To Rome with Love to feel dated. One typically attends an Allen film for comedy, drama, and/or cleverness. To Rome with Love is lacking in all three categories and comes across as trivial. It's either a failed experiment or a movie that was rushed through production so Allen could fulfill his one project-per-year commitment.
To Rome with Love tells four separate stories which are intercut but not connected. In fact, although they purport to happen in the same city, some appear to transpire in some fantastical parallel universe. Allen's penchant for "magical realism," used so effectively in Midnight in Paris, is introduced into at least one of these stories as an awkward, unsatisfying plot device. That it doesn't work is hardly a surprise considering how poorly thought-out its inclusion is. Beyond allowing Allen to include a few pithy lines and observations, it serves no discernible purpose - kind of like the entire movie, really.
One segment centers on the romantic life of budding architect Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), who has come to Rome for inspiration. He lives with his girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig), but his fidelity is tempted when her best friend, Monica (Ellen Page), comes to live with them. The perky, pretty Monica immediately sets out to seduce Jack and he puts up little more than token resistance. The "magic realism" aspect features Alec Baldwin as John, a middle-aged man who seems to have knowledge of the future, appears and disappears at will, and is sometimes visible to only Jack or Monica. Is he a ghost? Is he a figment of someone's imagination? Does anyone care?
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Rome, Woody Allen has stepped out from behind the director's chair to play Jerry, a retired P.T. Barnum-like opera director. He is in Rome with his wife, Phyllis (Judy Davis), to meet their daughter's fiancé and his parents. The groom-to-be's father, Giancarlo (real-life opera tenor Fabio Armiliato), displays a tremendous voice, but only when singing in the shower. So Jerry, convinced that Giancarlo deserves his time in the spotlight, arranges to have him perform in a specially designed stall. I seem to remember having seen this story in a cartoon at one time. Maybe The Flintstones?
The third segment features newlyweds Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi), who have come to Rome from a small town so Antonio can accept a lucrative job offer from his stuffy uncles. On their first day in the big city, they become separated. Milly ends up lost in Rome's streets and Antonio becomes entangled with Anna (Penelope Cruz) the prostitute as a result of an innocent misunderstanding. The message of this episode is that sometimes a little infidelity can be good for a marriage.
Finally, there's what could best be described as "The Roberto Benigni Show," the point of which is to illustrate the superficiality of reality television and the media's obsession with those who are "famous for being famous." Benigni plays Leopoldo, an ordinary guy who, for reasons unknown, suddenly becomes the target of paparazzi and tabloids. "What did he have for breakfast?" they ask. A big "get" is broadcasting him shaving in the morning. This entire segment unfolds like failed satire. Not only are the points it's making obvious and unremarkable, but Benigni is annoying. The final scene with Leopoldo seems to have been included exclusively to provide Benigni with the opportunity to make lots of funny faces and jump around like a spastic marionette.
Especially in the wake of the charming Midnight in Paris, To Rome with Love is a colossal failure. Even at its best, the movie barely passes muster and it's sometimes painful watching accomplished actors struggle with Allen's overly wordy dialogue. The humor is feeble with far more jokes failing than succeeding. Even Allen is unable to deliver punch-lines effectively, perhaps because the writer/director doesn't understand the character he has created for himself. I'm a fan of a lot of the actors Allen uses - Eisenberg, Page, Cruz, Gerwig, Davis - but they are given such thin broth that anything tasty is beyond their considerable capabilities.
To Rome with Love carries with it a whiff of misogyny in the shallow and occasionally shrill way women are represented, whereas just about every male character represents an embodiment of Allen at one stage or another of life. The farcical elements too broad to generate humor. The movie as a whole lacks warmth and joy, although it always looks good. It feels worn and cynical, and is filled with one-dimensional characters struggling through meaningless scenarios. To Rome with Love isn't endearing or amusing and it has nothing to say that I need or want to hear. Critics in general are too willing to give Allen a pass which is why few will come out and say what is apparent to me: To Rome with Love is tasteless drivel. This time, Woody should have taken a year off.
To Rome with Love (United States/Italy/Spain, 2012)
Cast: Alec Baldwin, Judy Davis, Woody Allen, Roberto Benigni, Penelope Cruz, Alessandra Mastronardi, Alessandro Tiberi, Ellen Page, Greta Gerwig, Jesse Eisenberg, Fabio Armiliato
Screenplay: Woody Allen
Cinematography: Darius Khondji
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics