Woody Allen hasn’t really been one for sustaining any kind of momentum for longer than a single movie or two. Usually his greatest successes come in strings of three films at the most, the last one being all the way back in the mid-1980s despite generally producing almost one film a year. Following his success last year with the delightful Midnight in Paris – a film that broke an almost decade long streak of mediocre films that included only two films that garnered any sort of notoriety (Match Point, Vicky Christina Barcelona) – it’s a shame to say that Allen can’t keep up the same energy when making a love letter a different city in To Rome With Love. Not so much an actual film, but more of a clearinghouse for several half baked ideas that could have been movies on their own, the film finds Allen in full on New York Stories mode, and that’s not exactly a good thing.
Instead of trying to craft one film with a clear structure and with a full amount of focus and concentration, Allen overstuffs the film with four entirely separate and disconnected plots that seem designed to portray Rome as a city of great romantic confusion but they really could have taken place anywhere and would’ve been better movies if they were allowed to live an breathe on their own instead of being forced together into a single film.
There’s no real A-story here as Allen cobbles together a near two hour film out of two romantic stories, a family story, and a random one off about the nature of fame. Jesse Eisenberg and Greta Gerwig star as a young couple studying and working abroad when a loose canon struggling actress (Ellen Page) comes to stay with them, gradually leading to the potential for infidelity. Gerwig suffers from the film just not having enough time to craft her a character and also because this story somehow inexplicably features Alec Baldwin as an architectural mentor to Eisenberg who might not even really be there. Baldwin, Eisenberg, and particularly Page are all fine, but its hard to care or feel sympathetic towards Eisenberg since the movie always feels quick to rush off to see what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Still, this is probably the most successful of the four plots.
Then there’s the tale of newlyweds Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) who become separated when the recent bride leaves their hotel to get accientaly lost in the city. A miscue leads to a prepaid prostitute (Penelope Cruz) entering Antonio’s room thinking he’s someone else and forces her to play the role of his bride to his intensely formal family. Meanwhile, Milly eventually finds her way to a film set where she geeks out over seeing all her favourite stars, leading to her flirting and potentially sleeping with her favourite actor (a gleefully oily Antonio Albanese). Aside from this story and the Eisenberg one suggesting that adultery might be the coolest way to potentially ruin or save a relationship, this one has such little development that I almost totally forgot it was a part of the film on the way out of the theatre. Thinking back, I realize that there’s a lot of potential in the story, but once again, there’s very little to really get excited about here.
The most thematically exciting story here also might be the simplest, recalling some of Allen’s best odes to cinema in from the mid-80s to the early 90s. Italian superstar Roberto Benigni gives a decidedly more subdued and character based turn here than he’s usually known for as a day-to-day working class man who one day wakes up and leaves his house to find himself hounded and stalked by the papparazi and wielding an unlikely sycophantic fan base that hangs off his every banal statement about what he did during the day. The concept of sudden celebrity is a pretty easy one to come up with, but unlike the other films that suffer from the anthology structure, Allen’s hand here feels decidedly unforced and assured. It’s a goofy, silly farce that breaks things up quite nicely, and which will probably serve the delightful Begnini well with North American audiences once again. It’s so good in fact that one wishes – you guessed it – that Allen would just make a movie out of this instead of giving it such a short leash.
In the more family concentrated storyline instead of the other three that largely deal with one on one romantic relationships or personal struggles, Allen shows up as an actor alongside Judy Davis (who it’s great to see on screen again in anything) playing the former music executive father travelling to see his daughter (Alison Pill) as she’s about to wed an Italian lawyer (Flavio Parenti). When he discovers her future groom has a father with a wonderful voice that only comes out in the shower, the mogul mind of Allen’s character becomes resurrected to try and make the man a star, much to the chagrin of the rest of his family.
What makes this storyline far more telling that the others is that it seems like Allen is copping to the fact that his own film is forced and kind of crappy. In recent interviews Allen has pretty much stated that this film was only made because his Italian distributors kept bugging him to make a film set in Rome and one day they managed to finally get serious about it and he felt like he was on the hook. With such knowing dialogue as “I miss work. I Hate being retired” and “You choose projects that are doomed to fail.” and before a sequence that closes the film where everyone shields Allen’s opera direction from horrible reviews, it’s hard not to think that he knew he didn’t have much to go on here.
Overall, To Rome With Love isn’t an awful movie, but rather four somewhat decent ones sabotaged for some sort of misguided greater good. There are elements within each of the stories that work so well, but this anthology film suffers from such poor pacing that it’s impossible to garner any sort of timeline from the stories. The newlywed plot seems to take place in a day, the celebrity plot over the course of weeks, the actress plot over a small handful of days (which makes the presence of Baldwin’s potential ghost even more maddening to watch), and the family plot over months or possibly a year (which makes no sense because at no point do Allen or Davis’ characters ever flat out say how long they were going there in the first place despite it seeming like a short trip). Allen keeps his wit intact thanks largely to a great cast, but without them the film is a bit of a trainwreck. Then again, there are worse places to watch a trainwreck than Rome.
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page, Alison Pill, Alec Baldwin
Directed by: Woody Allen
Top image: A scene from To Rome With Love. Courtesy Mongrel Media.