In over half of my last ten reviews, I’ve described the product at hand, in one way or another, as just another Woody Allen movie. So let me just get this out of the way now: To Rome With Love is just another Woody Allen movie. Neither good, bad nor unique enough to warrant a special place in Allen’s filmography, but filled with many of the things that make Woody Allen movies such a cherished commodity.
As the title suggests, To Rome with Love is set and filmed in Rome, and Allen gives the Eternal City the same glossy, postcard treatment he gave Barcelona, London and Paris. So breath-taking are this movie’s backdrops, they genuinely compete with the foreground for your attention. Allen’s European movies, perhaps not coincidentally, have all been among his most popular. If his career in narrative film ever hits a dead end, Allen could make a name for himself in travelogues.
To Rome with Love has no real protagonist, and instead has about a dozen supporting characters appearing in standalone vignettes. This is a common set-up for Allen, although usually there’s some shared thread or overlapping characters connecting all the stories, but here the different plotlines are totally exclusive. This makes it feel more like a short film compilation than something like You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger or Hannah and her Sisters.
The story that gets the most screen time is yet another regurgitation of Woody Allen’s all-time favorite plots: a nebbish, neurotic, khaki-adorned artist-type must choose between his nice, slightly bland girlfriend and one of those unstable, hyper-sexual failed actresses who have been running amok in Woody Allen’s id for the last four decades. The trio is played this time around by Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page, respectively.
When it was announced that Jesse Eisenberg was going to be in a Woody Allen movie, I’m sure the world collectively nodded its head, chuckled, and sarcastically asked what took so long. Eisenberg is probably the most Allen-like actor alive under 30, so it’s no surprise that he slips effortlessly into the part of his youthful stand-in. It can be interesting watching actors as diverse as Kenneth Branagh and Will Ferrell try their hand at Woody’s trademark ticks, but it’s far less distracting when it’s an actor whose persona already bears some resemblance to Woody’s. It’s easier to see what Eisenberg’s doing as a performance, not just an impression.
Ellen Page, on the other hand, doesn’t fare as well. She’s terribly miscast as Woody Allen’s prototypical sultry siren, a juicy but potentially disastrous part recently filled more effectively by Scarlett Johansson and Marion Cotillard. Page is perhaps a little too plain, and certainly too self-aware, for a role already verging on outlandish. She seems instead like she’s doing a parody of cinematic femme fatales. The film would’ve been improved immensely had she swapped roles with indie queen Greta Gerwig, who’s trapped in the thankless girlfriend role.
Like Midnight in Paris, this over-familiar story is redeemed, at least partially, by an amusing supernatural twist. Paris had its time travel, and Rome has Alec Baldwin as an ambiguously magical sidekick who shows up periodically to comment on the action. It’s unclear whether he’s a real person that everyone is inexplicably comfortable around or a figment of Eisenberg’s imagination. The specifics are left humorously unexplained.
Baldwin provides a running commentary on the Eisenberg/Page romance, and ends up acting both as sardonic comic relief and as an impromptu film critic. When he calls her shallow and under-developed, he took the words right out of my mouth. Baldwin’s dialogue shows that even if Allen is recycling the same characters and clichés, at least he’s aware of it.
Elsewhere in the movie, Woody himself shows up on-screen for the first time since 2006’s Scoop. He plays a retired opera director who, along with his wife (one-time regular Judy Davis), is meeting his new in-laws — a pair of socially liberal undertakers. It starts as a culture clash comedy but quickly turns into a bizarre farce in which Allen manages a show-business career for the undertaker (played by real-life tenor Fabio Armiliato), who has a wonderful singing voice, but only when he’s showering — so, naturally, they stage elaborate operas and then wheel him out in a shower stall.
Contrasting the Eisenberg/Page story, which goes to exactly all of the places you’d expect, this subplot admirably side-steps the more predictable gags. What begins as a dated take on incompatible cultures ends up as something truly strange, and very funny. It suggests that Allen’s wacky, surrealist side still lives on in some capacity.
Two other stories, both of which unfold entirely in Italian, compete fiercely with each other to be the most frivolous part of an already featherweight movie. One is the tale of a modest family man and office drone (Roberto Benigni) who awakes one morning and finds himself a mega-celebrity, for no discernible reason. At first he hates the fame, then he loves it, and then he cannot live without it. When his fame disappears as instantaneously as it arrived, it destroys him, and leaves him an embittered, raving husk. The message, which is helpfully explained in no uncertain terms, is that phony, shallow and hollow as fame may be, it’s better than being a nobody. Think Celebrity with training wheels.
Finally, there’s a moderately charming, if occasionally creepy, story about a virginal married couple who inadvertently end up in the arms of others, and in the process, learn a heart-warming lesson about the value of sexual promiscuity. The wife ends up with a robber, at gun-point no less, and the husband with a gold-hearted prostitute who really likes her job. The prostitute is played by a wasted Penelope Cruz, who seems to have borrowed Mira Sorvino’s dress and dialogue from Mighty Aphrodite.
If there is a similarity binding all these stories together, it’s that they each tell stories of people who embark on an unlikely adventure they never asked to go on only to end up more-or-less where they started, but a little wiser, having learned an important lesson. It’s tempting to try to extract a message from this, but equally tempting to dismiss it as simple coincidence.
Close to half the movie is in Italian, making this the first film of Allen’s to deviate so heavily from his native language (Vicky Cristina Barcelona had only the occasional Spanish interlude). Makes sense, then, that it was a big hit in Italy, where it ranks as one of the most popular movies of 2012 so far. It did pretty well in the rest of the world, too, except for the US, which is increasingly the case for Allen. Like Scoop, To Rome with Love followed a “comeback” blockbuster and managed to ride the momentum to a gross it likely wouldn’t have otherwise warranted.
Anyone who’s taken half a glance at the career of Woody Allen knows the two most common complaints about his movies: that they’re repetitive, and that they’re lazy. To Rome with Love bears a little more evidence in support of these critiques than most of Allen’s films. There’s almost nothing fresh happening here, and the wildly different content of the individual stories suggest a cobbled together movie in lieu of a whole one. Allen has described diversion-filled movies like Deconstructing Harry as good opportunities to purge half-finished ideas, and half-finished ideas is exactly what this movie is full of.
The flipside of that coin is that there are certain positives we can look forward to in even the weakest Woody Allen ventures. One of those things is an interesting, likable cast. Another is a handful of solid jokes, and To Rome with Love delivers on both. It also throws in gorgeous cinematography (courtesy of Midnight in Paris’ Darius Khondji) as a bonus.
In other words, To Rome with Love is unapologetically a Woody Allen movie in every conceivable way. Fortunately, that’s still something worth celebrating.
- “I was never a Communist. I could never share a bathroom.”
- “I want our little girl to marry into EuroTrash.”
- “Don’t try and psychoanalyze me. Many have tried, all have failed. My brain doesn’t fit the usual ego, superego model.”
“No, you have the only brain with three ids.”
- “I don’t want my father involved with the sharks in the music industry.”
“In the aquatic world I’ve been likened to a spineless jellyfish, but that’s about it.”
- The credits for this movie are in Italian — making this the first Woody Allen movie to have them in a language other than English.
- Opened in wide release in Italy several months before it opened in Great Britain or the United States.
- This movie went through a lot of title changes. It was initially called simply Rome, and then was called Bop Decameron. That being deemed too obscure, the title was then changed to Nero Fiddled. I rather liked that one, but I guess that was still too obscure, so the movie’s title was changed once more to the generic one it has now.
- To Rome With Love was also an American sitcom than ran from 1969-1971. No relation.
- All of Allen’s European movies (outside of England) have had their city’s name in the title (the others being Midnight in Paris and Vicky Cristina Barcelona).
- The movie opens with a traffic cop giving an introduction to his city. That guy is a real traffic cop.
- This marked Roberto Benigni’s first appearance in a movie widely released in America since his 1998 breakthrough Life is Beautiful.
- Six years marks the longest stretch of time Woody Allen has gone without acting in a movie.
- Incidentally, Woody announced his return to acting via press release saying he’d cast “the greatest of all my favorite actors — me.”
- Allen’s daughter is played in the film by Allison Pill, who memorably portrayed Zelda Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris.
- Released by Sony Pictures Classics, Sony’s art-house division, which also released Midnight in Paris and a handful of other ‘00s Allen movies.
- To Rome with Love is the first Allen movie to get an ‘R’ rating since Match Point in 2005.
- This is the first Woody Allen movie to be made after I started this blog.