What? So I’m reviewing a Woody Allen romantic comedy. Guy can’t get some variety going?
It’s seemingly been accepted that Woody Allen’s past his prime. The days of Annie Hall and other career-makers are long past, and what we’re bound to keep getting until he finally decides to pack it in are technically well-made but totally inconsequential bits of amusing fluff, with the occasional interesting idea peeking out here and there. This is pretty much exactly what To Rome with Love is, the ultimate post-Woody Allen Woody Allen movie. It has some cleverness, it has some charm, it won’t set the world on fire but it’ll distract you for a few hours and probably put a smile on your face until you forget about it entirely. Except maybe the fact that Penelope Cruz wears a miniskirt the entire movie.
The film is a collection of stories taking place in Rome, intercut and with little or no connectivity. In one, Roberto Benigni (who I confess I last saw in Down by Law, and he just isn’t as funny without big, poofy Krusty the Klown hair) plays an utterly normal guy who suddenly becomes a media darling for no real reason. In another, Woody plays Woody playing a talent scout type who discovers his daughter’s fiancee’s father (is there a shorter way to say that?) can sing opera like a motherfucker when he’s in the shower. The most interesting one is probably the one featuring Jesse Eisenberg, who meets Alec Baldwin who’s basically playing his older self who basically provides running commentary while Eisenberg has an affair with Ellen Page.
There’s a few others, and if you’re wondering what they really have to do with each other or what over all theme the film’s getting it, the answer as far as I can see it is sweet fuck-all. There are a few common elements, infidelity, celebrity, but any attempts at finding something that applies to every story works for some of them, but others less so.
The over-all effect in the end is that the movie feels kind of like Woody Allen’s story junk-drawer. It’s a whole bunch of ideas that theoretically maybe could be stretched out into an entire movie, but it’d take some doing to pull it off so fuck it, let’s just throw them all together into one big melting pot.
They don’t even cross the stories over, really, like having a character from one story bump into the other or have the events of one story affect the other or something. With one exception they’re all totally isolated and you could remove any one of them and it wouldn’t affect the story flow in the slightest, and I’ve always been of the opinion that if a part of your movie could be dropped completely and the film could still function, you have a problem.
As I said before, the most interesting story is probably the Ellen Page/Alec Baldwin/Jesse Eisenberg one, and it definitely captures a bit of that old Annie Hall irreverence and “just go with it” sense. When Baldwin and Eisenberg first meet they seem to be strangers, but at some point Baldwin just vanishes from the perception of everyone else except for the odd moment here and there and spends the rest of the story as telling Eisenberg he’s making terrible decisions It’s kinda neat, it’s like all of a sudden he’s a dead Jedi or the guy from Quantum Leap. But although it is an interesting story mechanic, and it does capture that spirit of not playing by any real rules of storytelling or logic, at the end you’re still left with the burning question “So what are you really saying with this?”. Neither Eisenberg nor Baldwin come to any real realization or have any real arc, they’re basically the same people at the end that they were at the beginning, and it all sort of smacks of “What’s the damn point”.
But does this make To Rome with Love bad? Well no, it just makes it feel like something more could have been done. Even if there’s an air of lost opportunity or the extra step not taken, Woody Allen is still a good director. The film is excellently shot, if lacking in a bit of flair, and clearly meant to be as much a visual showcase of Rome as much as anything else. You can tell a lot of care went in to the shots and that the locations were very carefully chosen, and it’s pretty clear Allen intended this as a love-letter to Rome, just in case the title didn’t give it away.
The acting is fine across the board, with Benigni doing his usual schtick of being confused and incredibly Italian, and Ellen Page standing out as the usual Manic Pixie Dream-Girl. On the other end of the spectrum is the likes of Alison Pill as Allen’s daughter, who plays the biggest non-character I’ve seen in a movie in ages, to the point that the movie itself seems to get bored with her after a while and just leaves her in a corner to exude all the personality and character of an old grape.
And that’s really To Rome with Love in a nutshell right there, when it’s not unimpressive and bland, it’s just sorta “fine”. At its best, there’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s also nothing really great about it either. It’s a box of toys and amusements, each serviceable on their own, but that fail to combine in any interesting or meaningful way, like a Constructicon would, or maybe a Soul of Chogokin if you want to get expensive.