Review by Pamela Zoslov
Woody Allen, who has just released his 43rd film, To Rome With Love, has become like that elderly uncle you remember from your childhood for his brilliant sense of humor, but whose increasingly feeble jokes you now laugh at out of polite nostalgia. He remains a formidable filmmaker — last year's Midnight in Paris was a thoroughgoing success — but his insistence on making a film every year means that lately there are more misses than hits, and the misses are all the more disappointing.
To Rome With Love, set in the colorful Italian capital because backers put up the money for it to be shot there, is based on a collection of half-developed ideas Allen had tucked away in his desk drawer. The randomness and mustiness of the stories is evident.
Allen toyed with several ideas for the movie's title, including The Bop Decameron, a nod to The Decameron, a 14th-century Italian novel consisting of 100 tales, and Nero Fiddled, before settling on the one that evokes the late-'60s TV series starring John Forsythe.
To Rome With Love features a handful of unrelated stories about tourists and residents of Rome. One story involves an ordinary businessman, Leopoldo (Roberto Begnini) who suddenly becomes a celebrity for no reason — “famous for being famous.” Paparazzi follow him everywhere, beautiful women throw themselves into his bed, and he's ushered onto a TV talk show to talk about what he had for breakfast. The point of this minor vignette, presumably, is to comment on the shallowness of modern celebrity culture, something Allen explored in more depth 32 years ago in Stardust Memories.
Another story involves a Roman mortician (played by Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato) who can sing opera sublimely, but only in the shower. Allen plays a retired opera director whose daughter is engaged to Giancarlo's son. When he hears Giancarlo's shower aria, he devises an unconventional way to bring him to the stage, a visual punchline that's not particularly funny, but is nonetheless repeated twice.
A clumsy bedroom farce has a pair of Italian newlyweds, Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) have their honeymoon interrupted by a gorgeous prostitute, Anna (Penelope Cruz), who shows up at Antonio's hotel room by mistake, just ahead of the arrival of his very conservative family. Both Antonio and Milly, who is meanwhile wandering the streets of Rome, having lost her way in search of a beauty salon, experience unexpected erotic awakenings.
The most successful of the stories has Alec Baldwin as John, a successful architect revisiting the city where he spent part of his early career. He is recognized at a street corner by Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a young architect who idolizes him. Jack takes John to the apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig). The street corner is analogous to the metaphysical Paris alley where Owen Wilson was whisked into the 1920s; John becomes a kind of ghostly presence in Jack's life, a mentor-advisor who comments on the action and warns Jack about the danger to his relationship posed by the impending arrival of Sally's supposedly sexy, irresistible friend Monica, an actress. “Can't you see that the situation is fraught with peril?” John warns his young, naïve protege. (John functions like Humphrey Bogart in Allen's Play It Again Sam).
Monica is one of those patented pseudo-intellectual Allen heroines, mouthing sophomoric pronouncements and quotations from Kierkegaard, Pound, Yeats and The Fountainhead. As embodied by Page, her vaunted sexiness is overstated, but her manipulative seductiveness works on Jack, challenging his loyalty to the level-headed Sally. (A younger, precocious brunette often tempts an Allen hero away from his sensible blond mate — art imitating life imitating art, I suppose, in Allen's case.) Baldwin, the funniest presence in this not very funny movie, comments sardonically on Monica's pretensions as she speaks (“Oh, God, here comes the bullshit”), a conceit not unlike Marshall McLuhan's walk-on in Annie Hall. This story also goes nowhere special, but there's a certain amount of fun in getting there.
To Rome With Love is Allen's seventh European-made film, something he calls a “happy accident, because I couldn't raise money any other way.” The 77-year-old filmmaker spoke to the New York Times about his lifelong affection for Italian cinema, citing four films that influenced him: Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine, Antonioni's Blow Up and Fellini's Amarcord. Even before his European cycle began, he was channeling Bergman (Interiors) and Fellini (Stardust Memories). Allen's latest film is a pretty anemic tribute to the films he admires; worse, it even fails to recapture the magic of his own best work.