Big talents, like everybody else, deserve a day off. And sure enough, in the illustrious Woody Allen canon, To Rome With Love is a very minor entry that should be accompanied by a sign that says “Gone fishing.”
Having forsaken New York (temporarily, I hope) for an uneven European tour that includes stops in London, Barcelona and Paris, Woody now sends home a pretty but vapid tourist postcard of Rome that is nothing more than stale bolognese coarsened by a compendium of numbingly familiar clichés. Just how stale is evident as a cheesy rendition of “Volare” overwhelms the opening credits. From there, his 44th film as a director is a labored farce that makes few demands on the talents of its all-star cast and ends up as boring as it is preposterous.
To Rome With Love is a valentine to the Eternal City that fares weakly compared to last year’s epic milestone, the high-concept Midnight in Paris. No freshness or original insight is evident in the four disconnected short stories that comprise this cinematic pasta fazool. The original title was The Bop Decameron, but disparaging reviews at the Italian opening two months ago conveyed the strong message that Roman cineastes did not enjoy the send-up of Boccaccio’s medieval Decameron folk tales. A change to its current title ensued, which was a good thing as the quartet of dreary episodes depicted here has none of the same classic thrill as anything by Boccaccio. Nothing solid has been worked out with consistence. The whole movie has the look and feel (not to mention the phony dialogue) of an idea jotted on the back of a menu in the Piazza Navona before a sleepy afternoon siesta, and then filmed before the script was fine-tuned.
Chief among the disappointments is Woody himself, acting for the first time since Scoop in 2006, as a neurotic former New York opera conductor who arrives with his psychiatrist wife (a wasted Judy Davis) to inspect the fiancé of their daughter (the excellent Alison Pill), a dashing but opinionated political activist and right-wing Italian architect named Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) who picked her up the Fountain of Trevi. As a germ-fearing hypochondriac, Woody has a few happily twitchy moments of self-deprecation and nervous hysteria, but we’ve seen them before, in better movies. The best thing in this episode is his discovery of the groom’s father, an undertaker and promising opera star who can sing only in the shower. (Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato turns in one of the film’s most amusing performances.) Pushing him against his will into the spotlight, Woody sets up a shower stall on a concert stage and the mortician sings Pagliacci naked to great acclaim, entering and exiting in only a towel.
Story No. 2 is a mess involving a pair of newlyweds from the provinces (Alessandra Mastronardi and Alessandro Tiberi) who become separated from each other in a series of mix-ups that turn tedious when the husband is accidentally visited—while his wife is lost in the traffic without a cell phone—by a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) who gets the wrong hotel room and he’s forced to pass her off as his wife at a fancy reception where the classy guests turn out to be her best clients. Meanwhile, the naïve wife wanders onto a movie set where she is seduced by the star, who is much too old to be mistaken as an Italian sex symbol. Pointless and excruciating.
Worse still is the one about the dull office clerk (Roberto Benigni) who inexplicably finds himself stalked by the paparazzi and turned into a celebrity before his 24 hours in the spotlight is replaced by a newer flavor of instant stardom. It’s a comment on the Italian lust for artificial fame that is less wry and more cruel than it might have seemed on paper.
Rock bottom is the empty shell revolving around an architecture student (Jesse Eisenberg, from The Social Network) spending a year in Rome who finds himself in the middle of a threesome among his live-in girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) and her house guest, a superficial, self-involved actress (Ellen Page), supervised and sarcastically annotated by an obnoxious social commentator and invisible guardian angel played by Alec Baldwin. Nothing about this little vignette works on any level whatsoever. It just lies there like congealed, week-old lasagna. The whole movie is narrated by a traffic cop on the foot of the Spanish Steps who never provides any real cohesion in the narrative or relates the fragmented sketch material to the Eternal City that surrounds it. It’s a movie made by a tourist. For the real thing, see Fellini’s Roma.
Silly and strained to the breaking point, it’s a movie that probably played out better in Woody Allen’s head than it does on film. Although they unfold against a panoply of artifacts and ruins, the parts don’t add up to a consistently riveting whole, and some of them are rusty as old nails. The only thing that resonates is the gorgeous cinematography by Darius Khondji, capturing Rome in the golden light of summer with such rich, buttery splendor that you might want to book a flight immediately. To Rome with Love has moments of isolated charm, but it’s only moderately entertaining, it isn’t very funny, and it’s entirely too long.
It’s time to pack up the Vuitton and come home, Woody. Your inspiration is thin, you’re running out of euros, and you’re having a bad day.
TO ROME WITH LOVE
Running Time 102 minutes
Written and Directed by Woody Allen
Starring Woody Allen, Penélope Cruz and Jesse Eisenberg