A film review by Craig J. Koban July 18, 2012


2011, R, 111 mins.


Jerry: Woody Allen / John: Alec Baldwin / Leopoldo: Roberto Benigni / Anna: Penelope Cruz / Phyllis: Judy Davis / Jack: Jesse Eisenberg / Sally: Greta Gerwig / Monica: Ellen Page

Written and directed by Woody Allen

Woody Allen’s TO ROME WITH LOVE – his 42nd as a director – is, for lack of a better word, a mess.  

It’s all the more messy and unsatisfying seeing as it comes in the wake of his critically adored box office champ MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, which I thought was his finest effort in well over a decade (a period for the filmmaker of borderline middling to adequate fare).  Like his last few films – which dabbled in Barcelona, London, and Paris – TO ROME WITH LOVE is an appreciative postcard to its location, and as a travelogue picture of exquisite and beautiful sights, the film is modestly enjoyable.  It’s just that the film framed around scenic Rome – which involves four separate stories and that are intercut, but not explicitly connected with one another – that seems haphazardly constructed with minimal focus and attention.   

This Italian romcom may superficially look new for Allen devotees, but underneath its good-looking foreign locale lurks a screenplay that’s meandering, aimless, desperate for a connective framework, and force feeds would-be uproarious scenes.  As with all of his previous films, Allen has once again proven himself to be one of the best managers of acquiring acting talent in the movies; performers from all walks of life seem intimately drawn to work with him, even if the script itself is a decided hit and miss affair.  I’m sure that the allure of being in a Woody Allen film was arguably more powerful and inviting than what was written on the page here. 

The four vignettes seem to work fine on their own, but as to what they contribute to a larger ideology of the film, Allen seems to be puzzled himself.  The first thread is compelling, if not a bit confusing.  It hones in on a classic Allen archetype – neurotic, confused, unsure of himself, etc. – in this case  a young architect, Jack (Jesse Eisenberg, whose delivery is perfect for an Allen film) that has come to Rome to live with his girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig, criminally misused), but temptation lurks into his life when one of her friends visits, Monica (Ellen Page).  Predictably, the sassy, outspoken, and sexually liberated Monica appeals to Jack, which she instinctively senses, so she moves in to seduce him.  However, John (Alec Baldwin) shows up, so to speak, who seems to know every play that Monica is attempting and tries to warn Jack.  Oddly, John appears and disappears at will, and Allen never really develops the “fantasy” aspect of this character very well.  I never really clued in as to whether he’s a ghost or an actual person with magical abilities or a future version of Jack that has come back to warn him. 



The second thread involves a newlywed couple, Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (the fetchingly gorgeous Alessandra Mastronardi) that come to Rome so that Antonio can work with his uncles.  Unfortunately, the pair gets separated and Milly becomes hopelessly lost in a largely unfamiliar city.  The two are tempted by seduction: Milly hooks up one of her favorite actors that’s shooting a film in Rome, whereas Antonio finds a connection with a local whore named Anna (the feisty Penelope Cruz) that – for reasons too complicated to explain – Antonio passes off as his wife when his relatives come knocking.  Allen sets up this segment with the lame contrivances of a lackluster TV sitcom. 

The third storyline involves the director moving back from behind the camera and participating in front of it (for the first time in six years).  Allen plays a version of the classic Allen-ian comic type that we've seen way, way too often for it to appear fresh and funny anymore: he’s Jerry, a retired opera director that wants to settle down with his wife (Judy Davis, who handles the film’s best verbal zingers with a deadpan aplomb) in Rome to meet her daughter’s (Allison Pill) boyfriend and future son-in-law.  Fate steps in when Jerry meets the lad’s father, Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), who has a remarkable tenor voice…but only in the shower.  Hmmm…I wonder if Jerry will come out of retirement, manage Giancarlo, and make him a star? 

The final of the four threads is arguably the most interesting and could have had a whole film devoted to it: Roberto Benigni plays Leopoldo, an ordinary man that, for reasons never explained, explored, or thoroughly developed – immediately becomes a celebrity and is under the constant scrutiny and focus of the paparazzi, tabloids, and news networks.  Nothing is too insignificant for the crazed reporters to cover (like what Leopoldo ate for breakfast and how many strokes he takes shaving).  Of course, all of this newfound and unwanted fame makes Leopoldo go predictably bonkers. 

TO ROME WITH LOVE has its inherent charms: I liked Benigni as a humdrum man who unwittingly finds himself going from average schmuck to reality TV sensation.  Eisenberg has a nervous, fidgety energy that makes him a very good Allen stand-in (despite the fact that Allen, yes, is also in the picture).  Penelope Cruz reliably oozes raw sex appeal as a prostitute placed in a peculiar situation (she shows how great actresses can take banal and artificial material and somehow make it work).  Allen’s film looks unendingly pleasant for the eyes: he wisely recruited his MIDNIGHT IN PARIS cinematographer, Darius Khondji, to make Rome a city of vivid color, attractive architectural wonders, and a place that seems to invite whimsy, romanticism, and a bit of magic. 

Yet, TO ROME WITH LOVE never emerges as anything better than a pretty looking and phoned-in cinematic postcard.  Allen seems to be straining at making all the vignettes tie together in some meaningful manner and, at the same time, struggles with defining the particulars of some of them.  Baldwin, as delightful as he is here, plays a “magical” character that’s less magical than he is a lazy plot device.  And speaking of plot devices, the notion of a man with an incredible singing voice that only can perform in public while in a shower seems heavily borrowed from a classic Flintstone episode (if you’ve seen the episode in question you’ll know exactly what I mean).  Ellen Page in her segment is hopelessly miscast as an alluring temptress that has man fawning over her.  She is an attractive and wonderful young actress, but she’s never credible here as a person that would lure Jack so easily away from his wife. 

The storyline involving Benigni’s character hits all the predictable thematic beats with a lumbering obviousness, and the other involving the newlyweds trying to stave off committing adulterous affairs never generates any serious anxiety-plagued comic momentum.   With the exception of MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, Allen just seems to be running out of fruitful creative gas.  TO ROME WITH LOVE is familiar, deficient in focus and guffaws, and overall just feels like an exhausted and mediocre effort for the aging director.  Reportedly, the whole idea of the film came from financiers from Rome, who gave Allen a single source of capital to make the film there.  Allen stated publicly that he made TO ROME WITH LOVE in order to work in the beautiful city and for “the opportunity to get the money and work quickly…”  The final product here reflects his comments.  Much like a vacation destination, TO ROME WITH LOVE is a nice film to visit, but I don’t feel compelled to ever live through it again.

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