To Rome With Love
Woody Allen’s latest vacation may not be his worst film, but it’s his least inspired. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit his To Rome With Love provided me with ample belly laughs, but in a very sad turn, I think this is the first Allen film that isn’t really ’about’ anything. Even his worst films have always had something to say: "Interiors" is an audacious attempt at a Bergman-esque family drama, "Small Time Crooks" plays off economic fears, "Curse of the Jade Scorpion" allowed him to indulge in noir-tropes. But this collection of four Italian-tinted tales feels like nothing more than a loose construction designed for nothing more than to house his one-liners.
As a collection of short stories, I should expect nothing less. The anthology genre has long been the definition of hit-and-miss, with Allen himself even dabbling in it a couple times himself. But the decision to render the stories here as one narrative, with Allen cutting back-and-forth from story to story rather than letting them play out one-by-one as chapters, feels like a misjudgment at best and narrative suicide at worst. Like all his films, it still has more laughs than most big budget comedies. But unlike most of his films, it also feels just as lazy as those studio releases.
In fact, the shorts are so divorced from the central city of Rome, so independent of its ambience that you can’t help but assume that Allen simply wrote in the titular city Mad-Libs style. Only two of the four feature Italian stars, and it’s in universal conceits: one, for example, features Roberto Benigni as an average Roman who awakes to find himself a celebrity for no apparent reason. In Allen’s typically cynical construction, he soon learns that the perils of celebrity are far preferable to lack-of-excitement inherent in a "normal" life. At least it feels more honest than the parade of "personal" opus from celebrities who want their ’before the paparazzi’ lives back.
Another short sees a honeymooning couple from a small town corrupted by the big city forces; with a coincidental separation leaving the wife with a handsome movie star and the husband with a sultry prostitute played by none other than Penelope Cruz. On the surface, it recalls Fellini’s early comedy "The White Sheik," which might be the point. But again, it’s a one-joke premise, and by the time you get to the climax (which, thanks to the flawed structure, plays back-to-back with 3 other climaxes) it’s impossible to care about the punch-line. 112 minutes is just too long a build for jokes this simple.
Allen makes his first acting performance in six years in another short (by far the most city-centric of the three) that sees his daughter, played by Allison Pill, marrying a gorgeous Italian bachelor. When Allen, playing a neurotic-but-nebbish (surprised?) concert producer, realizes that his son-in-law’s father is a brilliant opera singer - but only in the shower - he schemes and plans relentlessly to get the man on stage. While the protracted build-up again detracts from the economy of the short-story style, at least here the payoff is worthy of the buildup.
The film undeniably peaks in the last section, which sees an aging, sell-out architect (played by Alec Baldwin) confronting a youthful version of himself (Jesse Eisenberg, who should be playing the types of roles Allen wrote for himself in the 70s.) The segment features all the casual magic and playfulness of Allen’s best work, with Baldwin appearing as a Greek Chorus who is sometime seen and sometime ignored by Eisenberg, his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig), and an interfering seductress (Ellen Page.) Where anyone else would feel a need to define and explain the conceit, Allen just follows it to its logical and emotional conclusion. The segment (which, admittedly, is nothing more than a miniature take on Allen’s own "Anything Else") is too good for the movie; you want to edit it out and let it play as its own 20-odd minute short.
And the reason is, in a rare cinematic miscalculation, Allen made each short worse through his construction of the cheaply titled "To Rome With Love" (it really does feel like the title was picked out of a hat once the producers realized Allen’s successful films have recently had European names in the titles.) There’s no thematic connection between any of the shorts; and it feels like he’s trying to trick you into constructing one through his cutting-back-and-forth style.
It builds to a climax that never comes, leaving all the individual conclusions underemphasized. Undoubtedly, I’m underselling the amount of belly laughs Allen produces here with his one-liners. But with 40-something Woody Allen films out in the world, all with the same laughs, this one feels like a waste. With none of the manic laughs of his early comedies nor the emotional pathos of his late ones, "To Rome With Love" is a love letter most should leave unopened.