Even when Woody Allen isn’t at the top of his game, it’s comforting to know he’s still out there, churning out one film a year or more. Cinema wouldn’t be the same without him, and I imagine a year without a new Allen film would feel much more incomplete than a year with a disappointing one.
That being said, To Rome With Love tested my patience more than any other Allen film in recent memory. It’s a messy, unfocused, unfunny, and above all else, exhausting slog of a comedy that grows more frustrating as it moves along, especially when we know Allen is capable of so much more.
The film tells four interlocking stories set in Rome, and the way Allen structures these tales is the first, most immediate issue. They are all, in essence, standalone shorts, with different characters, timetables, and thematic interests, but all 4 are presented side by side, with Allen intercutting between them as the film moves along. It’s a terrible choice for many reasons, chiefly because cutting away from a developing, self-contained story cripples the audience’s ability to emotionally invest. Each plot would be much stronger if it were presented sequentially, on its own, with the film structured as a series of four consecutive shorts.
Even then, none of the stories are particularly compelling. In fact, three of the four are complete duds, and the one that actually works isn’t nearly as fleshed out as it should be. In it, Alec Baldwin stars as a middle-aged American architect vacationing in Rome; he lived there once as a student, and as he walks the streets reminiscing, he runs into his younger self, played by Jesse Eisenberg.
Only Woody Allen could make such a high-concept piece of fantasy so delightfully low-key, and that’s the story’s strength. As Baldwin watches his younger self dive deeper and deeper into a series of romantic mistakes, he hovers behind Eisenberg’s shoulder, wryly commenting on the proceedings. It’s not hugely insightful, but it’s certainly interesting, lighthearted and charming in all the right ways. Plus, with Ellen Page appearing as Eisenberg’s romantic foil, there’s plenty of great talent to go around, each performer perfectly fit to deliver Allen’s trademark dialogue.
Yet by the end, the story wears thin, and a wee bit tiresome. The feeling sinks in much sooner for the other shorts. Roberto Benigni appears as a bored, suffocating office worker, feeling invisible in his daily life. One morning, he wakes up to find he is suddenly a celebrity, doted upon by a crazed media that wants to know every minute detail of his boring, daily life. It’s probably the film’s cleverest set-up, and gives Allen plenty of room to explore the nature of celebrity and discontent. But it winds up being entirely one-note; Benigni is surprised to find himself famous, protests, eventually gives in, enjoys himself, and then goes back to being surprised. Wash, rinse, repeat. There’s nothing more to it than that, with the action growing increasingly repetitive with each passing second. I like the way Allen ends the story – it’s a wickedly subversive punctuation point – but other than that, there’s nothing here.
Allen himself stars in a story that’s even more of a waste. His daughter (the wonderful Alison Pill, tremendously underutilized here) has become engaged to a young Italian man after spending the summer in Rome, so Allen (at his most excessively neurotic) and his wife (Judy Davis) have come to meet the groom’s parents. At first, it seems like Allen is attempting to contrast the vitality of youth with the bitter nature of old age, or provide a personal commentary on why retiring is difficult for creative types, but in the end, this story has no point. It’s all built around one spectacularly awful joke, one that comes far out of left field, and Allen keeps hammering that bad joke into the ground scene after scene after scene.
I’m not sure what to make of the fourth story. It involves a young newlywed Italian couple (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) travelling to Rome for their honeymoon. On the way to the hairdresser’s, the wife gets lost, while the husband waits in their hotel room. He’s suddenly visited by a prostitute (Penelope Cruz, in a much less interesting role than her Oscar-winning turn in Vicky Cristina Barcelona), who was sent to him by mistake. Just as he’s telling her to leave, his relatives arrive, and the man decides to pass the prostitute off as his wife.
This is the most rambling and pointless of the stories, especially once the end is reached and no denouement is provided. It gives a cursory glance to some of Allen’s pet topics about commitment and sexuality, but not much more, and in the end, the whole affair is entirely forgettable.
There are redeeming elements on display throughout the film. The cast is filled with people I’d watch in just about anything, and each of them does strong work. As always, Allen has chosen nothing but the most beautiful locations, and every last moment is gorgeously photographed. But these elements are a sort of baseline proficiency for Allen these days, things we’ve come to expect from any film with his name on it. Otherwise, the film just feels like it’s being made on autopilot, and not a particularly well-tuned autopilot at that. If you, like me, try to catch everything Allen releases, To Rome With Love is worth a watch just for curiosity’s sake, but for everyone else, this one isn’t worth the time.
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To Rome With Love finds Woody Allen on autopilot, and not a particularly fine-tuned autopilot either. It's always good to see what Allen has in store, but this outing is disappointing and exhausting.