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To Rome With Love

June 29, 2012
To Rome With Love

Woody Allen’s latest film, To Rome With Love, extends his tour of European capitals to Italy. Expectations are high after the tremendous response to last year’s Midnight in Paris, but it’s hard to know what to make of this one, partly because it’s really four films that may have been better presented as a collection of shorts than as an interleaved whole so the weaker parts wouldn’t drag the stronger ones down. Thankfully, Allen does know better than to go in for some late-90s confluentialist twist; there are no hidden connections between the four vignettes deeper than the common theme of personal fantasy.

One story sticks out as the least Allenish of all: the one featuring Roberto Benigni. In fact, it could well be a Benigni short on its own since he plays his usual, perpetually-befuddled character. This time it’s Leopoldo, a thoroughly normal, middle-class clerk who suddenly finds himself the object of celebrity, famous for no better reason than being famous. True, which of us has not wondered what that life must be like, but you can probably work out the entire arc from this premise without spending the half-hour of screen time Allen grants it.

Next up: a farce about a young newlywed couple from a small Italian town (Alessandra Mastronardi and Alessandro Tiberi). They come to Rome for their honeymoon and to start a life in the big city, but they are quickly separated. He ends up with a prostitute, Anna (Penélope Cruz), posing as his wife to his extended family, while she finds herself the object the affections of famous actor Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese). There’s a bit of sexual silliness here and there, mostly surrounding Anna’s profession, but otherwise not much to this story. Allen is pretty clearly trying to explore the couple’s misgivings as their married life begins, but it’s far less clear what he has to say on the matter, if anything.

The most Allenish story is, naturally, the one he himself stars in. Jerry (Allen) and Phyllis (Judy Davis) are visiting their daughter, Hayley (Alison Pill), who has fallen in love with Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) during her summer as a tourist. Jerry is an unhappily-retired producer and director of avant garde opera and other musical productions, so he’s amazed to discover that Michelangelo’s father, Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), has a fantastic tenor voice — but only in the shower. The story is, plainly, absurd, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What sinks it is the way Allen descends into self-parody, featuring everything that people rightly complain about in his weaker films. The absurdity works, but the nebbishy schtick is long past played-out.

Which brings us to, by far, the strongest of the stories: famous architect John (Alec Baldwin) wanders the neighborhood where he lived for a year in his youth, where he meets aspiring architect Jack (Jesse Eisenberg). Jack is living with his girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig), whose struggling actress friend, Monica (Ellen Page), comes for a visit. Jack finds himself attracted to Monica, despite his better judgement and John’s advice. This one is where everything clicks; Baldwin, Eisenberg, and Page are all solid, and even Gerwig is better than usual, albeit in a smaller role.

The shame is that this really strong and well-crafted story is chopped up and shuffled together with the three weaker ones, and the whole starts to drag on. I can see, thematically, how they all are supposed to work as a set, but I can’t see why they weren’t simply presented as four separate vignettes. It’s possible that the weaknesses become all the more glaring when presented as solid blocks, but the answer to that is to get someone to help with the writing, not to resort to editing tricks.

Worth It: not really.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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