Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Alec Baldwin, Penelope Cruz, Roberto Benigni, Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page, Woody Allen
The problem with the current phase of Woody Allen’s career is that when you sit down to watch his latest, you never know if you’re going to get a Midnight in Paris or a Whatever Works. While To Rome with Love is nowhere near as aggressively terrible as the latter of those, it has a frustratingly half-baked feeling to it that seriously detracts from whatever genuine pleasures the film can be said to contain. Basically: great cast and great scenery, but both utterly wasted.
To Rome with Love is comprised of four unrelated stories set in Rome and told with a magic realist bent. The first story involves Hayley (Alison Pill), who falls in love with an Italian lawyer, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti), while vacationing in Rome. When Hayley and Michelangelo become engaged, her parents Jerry (Allen) and Phyllis (Judy Davis) fly out to meet Michelangelo and his family. Jerry is a recently – and unhappily – retired opera director who discovers during the visit that Michelangelo’s father, Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), has a beautiful singing voice and encourages him to audition to perform in an opera. Unfortunately, Giancarlo’s gift only appears when he’s singing in the shower, which prompts Jerry to come out of retirement and find a creative way around the problem.
The second story involves a honeymooning Italian couple, Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi). In preparation for meeting Antonio’s rich relatives, Milly decides to go to a salon, but gets lost on the way. Meanwhile, Anna (Penelope Cruz), a prostitute, has arrived at the wrong room and when Antonio’s relatives arrive unexpectedly early, he’s forced to pretend that Anna is his wife. Meanwhile, Milly meets a film star who sweeps her off her feet.
The third story is about Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni), who wakes up one morning and discovers that he’s somehow become a national celebrity. Although somewhat disconcerted by the new attention being lavished on him while he goes about such mundane tasks as eating breakfast and shaving, his celebrity status does have its benefits, namely that people suddenly care what he thinks and women want to sleep with him. Eventually, however, fame begins to feel burdensome and he starts to lament the lack of privacy and peace in his life.
The fourth story is about John (Alec Baldwin), an architect who has returned to Rome, where he lived when he was a student. While searching out his old haunts he meets Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), an architecture student who is living in Rome with his girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig). Jack and Sally’s relationship is thrown into turmoil when Sally’s friend, Monica (Ellen Page), comes to visit and an attraction develops between her and Jack. One of two things is happening in this story: either the Jack/Sally/Monica plot is a memory from John’s past, or John is a figment of Jack’s imagination, a sort of angel on his shoulder encouraging him to make the right decision. At any rate, John pops up suddenly throughout the story, observing the triangle playing out and trying to steer Jack away from Monica.
While individual elements of each of the four stories work, none of them work completely in and of themselves or with the other stories. As a result, To Rome with Love feels like several half-formed ideas slapped together, reliant on the skill of the actors to sell them. The actors, for the most part, do fare well. Baldwin brings a weary exasperation to his role as the man and/or figment who knows how his younger counterpart’s story is going to end, but can only stand by helplessly and watch him make every wrong choice presented to him. Meanwhile, Benigni brings great energy to his story, playing a man for whom the grass is always greener on the other side, and Cruz does more than you’d expect with the “wise hooker” role.
To Rome with Love certainly isn’t devoid of charm, but it’s an understatement to say that it never really clicks into place. It’s a major comedown from the highs of Midnight in Paris and further proof that Allen might be well served by taking more time between projects, instead of churning out a film per year. Here’s hoping the next one is an improvement.