Woody Allen continues his cinematic tour of the great cities of Europe with To Rome With Love. While not as wonderful as Midnight in Paris, it’s also not as embarrassing as some of his post-2000 output. It’s amiable and charming and made me laugh on more than a few occasions. Those who are not predisposed to him, though, will likely be unimpressed.
Those who saw the recent American Masters documentary on Allen will remember his idea collection. He writes them down on scraps of paper, and when it’s time to do a new film, he sorts through them, looking for a winner. With To Rome With Love, it’s clear that he found four ideas that were not hefty enough for a full-length feature, and banded them together with the common thread being they take place in Rome. But unlike Midnight in Paris, he doesn’t really take the opportunity to saturate the script with Italian flavor. This could have taken place in any city.
The four stories are: an ordinary man (Roberto Benigni) is suddenly and inexplicably followed by paparazzi and asked banal questions about the activies of his day. A honeymooning couple (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) are to meet his severe family. But she gets lost, and ends up meeting a famous Italian movie star. He ends up substituting a high-class call girl (Penelope Cruz) for his wife.
A world-weary architect (Alec Baldwin) ends up being an invisible mentor to a young architecture student (Jesse Eisenberg), who falls in love with his girlfriend’s bewitching best friend (Ellen Page), and finally, Woody Allen plays a retired opera director flying to Rome to meet his daughter’s fiance, and discovering that his father (Fabio Armiliato) has a fantastic singing voice–but only in the shower.
As one might expect, some stories are better than others. The most sharply drawn, perhaps because it is the simplest, is the Benigni one, since it nicely parodies the culture of celebrity worship, particularly celebrities who have no discernible talent. Benigni, who would have been a terrific comic in the silent era, plays the bewilderment of the character wonderfully, but when his celebrity is passed on to someone else, he realizes he misses the adulation. In a strange moral of the story (especially coming from the shy Allen), Benigni is told that between being a celebrity or being unknown, being a celebrity is better.
The weakest segment is the one featuring Cruz, which is half-baked and ends up in a bizarre, completely ridiculous finish involving a hotel burglar. There are few laughs here, especially when the jokes are as old as when Cruz, after hearing someone remark on a painted ceiling, “I can’t imagine what it’s like to work on your back” saying, “I can.”
In the middle is the sequence with Baldwin and Eisenberg. This is quintessential Allen, with names like Yeats, Camus and Rilke dropped in casual conversation. Page plays a creature that reappears in Allen’s work from time to time–the intellectual femme fatale (see Winona Ryder in Celebrity for another example), a woman (a “self-absorbed pseudo-intellectual”) that puts a spell on the unsuspecting, vaguely Semitic hero, making him forget about his solid if relatively unexciting girlfriend (here played by Greta Gerwig). The dialogue is that kind of NPR-ready cocktail party conversation that no one really speaks in real life, but I did laugh a few times, especially at the expression on Eisenberg’s face while Page describes a heated sapphic encounter. What mystified me about the segment was Baldwin’s presence. He’s real when Eisenberg first meets him, but then is some sort of Jiminy Cricket figure, visible only to Eisenberg, except for the few times that Page speaks to him. This was done much better when Bogart served as Allen’s conscience in Play It Again, Sam.
Allen’s segment is the funniest, if only for the presence of the man himself, his first acting job in six years (Scoop was his last starring role). Despite being in his mid-70s, the man still has a way with a line. We first see him white-knuckled on the flight in, and no one can wrap their mouth around the word “turbulence” like he can.
This time he has a more age-appropriate wife (Judy Davis), a psychiatrist who correctly deduces that he is equating retirement with death (an interesting tidbit for those who wish to see Allen in his own work). His work as an opera director was “ahead of his time” (such as mounting a production of Rigoletto with a cast all dressed like white mice). When he hears his future in-law’s voice, he has visions of making him a star, but the man can’t sing except in the shower. Allen gets the bright idea of staging a production of I Pagliaci with Armiliato (a famed Italian tenor) in the shower the entire time. “He’ll be the biggest opera star in the world,” Allen says, to which Davis replies, “At least he’ll be the cleanest.”
The segment plays like one of Allen’s casuals that are published in the New Yorker. Actually seeing the man sing in the shower on stage is not as funny as imagining it, but it’s still amusing. Upon hearing the review in the paper, which says that Allen should be taken out and beheaded, his daughter (Allison Pill) says he’s had worse.
To Rome With Love is acceptable Allen fare, but one wishes he had done more with the setting, and perhaps slowed down to flesh out the script. There are kernels of good ideas here, but some of them don’t pop. None of the four stories intersect, which could be an artistic choice but I chalk it up to speed and laziness on Allen’s part. But it has touches of Allen’s sense of humor (“I was never a communist. I could never share a bathroom”) and has plenty of gorgeous Italian women.
My grade for To Rome With Love: B-.