After considerable rom-com success with “Vicky Christina Barcelona” and “Midnight in Paris,” Woody Allen brings audiences to Rome in his third love affair with a European city in recent years.
“To Rome With Love,” starring a laundry list of big names and Allen repeats, also features Allen’s first acting job since 2006’s “Scoop.” (Yes, “Scoop” was also set in Europe, but it was more of list of grievances than passions for London, drenched in neurotic quips about bad food and driving on the wrong side of the road.) “To Rome” is, to quote the lady in my post-film elevator, “cute.” This is a rather astute judgment. The film is fun, sometimes even funny, but generally a lightweight work from such a heavyweight director.
After the standard credits reel (actors listed in alphabetical order and white Windsor font on black, as true fans will know) and a minute or two of Italian get-to-know-the-setting music, the camera pans up to a white-gloved traffic director, who tells us, “I see all people. In Roma, all is a story.” There are four stories that make up the movie: an American tourist (Alison Pill) becomes engaged to a dashing, young Roman (Flavio Parenti); Italian newlyweds (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) hit a speed bump on their honeymoon; an old American architect (Alec Baldwin) hangs out with a young American architect (Jesse Eisenberg), his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig), and her friend (Ellen Page); and a middle-class, married Roman (Roberto Benigni) wakes up one day to find out that he is famous simply for being famous. The stories show some promise, even though they don’t ever intersect—instead they are cut and sewn back together, about 10 minutes at a time.
In the first, Allen appears as Pill’s bumbling, music-industry father Jerry. He introduces himself on his bumpy Alitalia flight with, “Great, turbulence, my favorite—I can’t unclench when there’s turbulence.” Allen’s one-liners are consistently hot when he meets his daughter’s socialist fiancé, and his mortician father (Fabio Armiliato). But upon hearing Armiliato’s shower-borne opera-singing, Jerry is enticed by its beauty and convinces him to audition for “Pagliacci.” Only able to belt it while scrubbing and sudsing, Armiliato performs the opera from an onstage shower.
Though the opera arc is funny and original, it ends a little abruptly after the performance. In fact, all four storylines feel a little short.
When the honeymooners arrive at their hotel room in Rome, beautifully naïve Milly (Mastronardi) decides her hair is too rural for their important dinner and goes to find a salon, but gets lost in Rome’s labyrinth of convoluted directions and serpentine side-streets before plopping down, without a cell phone or a haircut, on the stoop of a fountain. Meanwhile, Antonio (Tiberi) opens the room’s door to unexpected visitor Anna (Penelope Cruz), a rambunctious, high-priced prostitute who confuses her client with Antonio. The case of mistaken identity only thickens when Antonio’s high-society relatives barge in on him and Anna, assuming her to be Milly. Not sure how to act, Antonio doesn’t correct them and Anna joins the family for the day. Tiberi is a young Italian Allen bent over on neurosis steroids, bumbling and mumbling his way with the buxom, self-assured, and hilarious Anna, who is always ready to make the relatives uncomfortable. On a private tour of the Vatican, one aunt rhetorically asks about the Sistine Chapel, “Can you imagine working all that time on your back?” Everyone is silent except for Anna, who casually says in one of her many double-entendres of the day, “I can.”
Milly, still trying to find her way back, runs into a famous Italian actor whom she cites as being “the sexiest man alive” and lets him take her to lunch. Possible infidelity looms over the couple, and it is up to the audience to decide on the morality of their situations. There is rarely an Allen film without extra-marital action, so it’s an old trope for those who know him well. But “To Rome” ups the ante with not one, but three tempted partners as we move on to the story of Jack (Eisenberg) and Sally (Gerwig).
Sally brings Jack to pick Monica (Page) up from the airport, as the latter is getting over a recent breakup with her gay ex and needs some time to cool down. Sally claims men adore Monica because “of this sexual vibe that she gives off,” but the role is a strange one for Page, whose claim to fame as the quirk and unassuming Juno doesn’t translate well into sexy, pretentious Monica. Baldwin, meanwhile, makes a strange transition from real character to almost mystical Jiminy Cricket, suddenly dropping in on the group to analyze the dynamics of each scene. He spouts wisdom-cum-sarcasm (“If something is too good to be true, you can bet that it’s not,” he says), trying to stave off the affair between Jack and Monica, who have similar interests and über-pretentious discussions about Camus, Plato, and Neruda, with neither of them really knowing much about the authors.
The budding relationship is, however, predictable with Baldwin calling all the shots, and the moments of romance are so unbearably trite—they kiss during a thunder storm!—that when it was finally over, I couldn’t help but ask, “Is that it?”
Allen, so long a master of quirky and particular relationships, has apparently stooped to the generic. Additionally, Eisenberg (as one of the least versatile actors in the world) plays Zuckerberg once again, but that is not enough to hold up the scene, while the poorly cast Page does little to excite.
Benigni plays Leopoldo Pisanello, an average Italian who goes from bickering over the price of honey at breakfast and staring after secretaries at work to being chased down by reporters and cameramen whenever he steps outside. Similar to Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian, Leopoldo is famous for no reason at all, yet newscasters hound him with questions like “What did you have for breakfast this morning?” and “Do you prefer boxers or briefs?” His responses are treated as gospel, and the whole dynamic is hilarious until he grows bored of the interviews, starlets, and gossip. He leaves the limelight only to find that—wonder of wonders—he misses it after all. Regardless, Benigni is charming and peculiar, drawing laughs with as little as a raised eyebrow or a shrug.
When the four stories combine to make up the film, the result is enjoyable, but a little underwhelming. As a film-major English teacher once told me, “I go to the movies to be moved.” That is not the case here. It’s a fun, easy comedy, but the fact that Woody Allen has always shunned the generic, mocked the rom-com, and championed the neurotic, makes this project somewhat unfulfilling. “Manhattan,” “Annie Hall,” even dictator-mockumentary “Bananas,” or really almost all of his films, are hilarious in their insight, witty in their originality, part of a category that he practically invented.
Allen was much criticized for imitating his idol Ingmar Bergman in the late seventies and eighties with films like “Interiors” and “Another Woman.” Now, he’s almost mimicking the likes of Nora Ephron. With these European comedies that are more romantic than insightful, optimism is playing a greater role than his standard cynicism. The Big Apple neurosis of old has given way to something plainer. Well, Mr. Allen, come back to Manhattan, please. New York is lonely without you.