Director: Woody Allen
Following something as successful as Midnight in Paris — which became both a Best Picture nominee as well as the highest-grossing picture of Woody Allen’s career — was never going to be easy. Allen struck gold in that one, finding an ideal surrogate for himself in Owen Wilson and allowing everyone, for the time being, to repress the fact that his recent output has been so erratically scattershot. Unfortunately, his latest Eurotrip, To Rome with Love, brings those memories back in a hurry, with the narrative-vignette approach ultimately revealing a desert-dry uncertainty rather than a purposeful overriding agenda.
Let’s start with the strangest and, even if it doesn’t make good on its promise, most potentially illuminating of these threads. Ellen Page — in a role that makes her slight misplacement in Inception look like a stroke of casting genius — plays Monica, who, as we’re so bullheadedly told time and time again, is a sexually liberated being, always managing to wile men with her exotic allure. Initially, this is not a concern for Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), who is going steady with Monica’s best friend, Sally (Great Gerwig, given less than nothing to do). But when Jack stumbles across one of his architect idols (a mysterious Alec Baldwin) on the streets of Rome, he begins to give in more and more to his less chivalrous side.
Elsewhere in The Eternal City is Allen himself, playing a former opera director struggling with the monotony of retirement. He and his wife (Judy Davis, a droll delight) are in town to celebrate the sudden engagement on their daughter (Alison Pill), who’s fallen in love with Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). When Jerry (Allen) hears Michelangelo’s father, Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), projecting a glorious tenor voice in the shower one afternoon, he’s tempted to push the man into trying his hand at an opera career before it’s too late.
Roberto Benigni, who won an Oscar for Life is Beautiful, is also showcased here, playing a middle-class everyman who gets caught up in a frenzy of fame and attention. No explanation is given as to why the paparazzi hound him wherever he goes, asking him what he eats for breakfast and how he takes his coffee. We’re only told that he’s “famous for being famous,” which is a deceptively vague move — it teases us into picking out implications here and there, only to wind up telling us the point of it all in plain, black-and-white dialogue. Why not simply have Allen spitball his celebrity-image theories in a monologue over the course of one or two minutes and save us the struggle of following Benigni around for 30 or 40?
Before I forget, there’s one more storytelling strand, involving a newlywed couple who get curiously separated on the day Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) is supposed to meet the parents of Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi). She gets lost on her way to the nearby salon, and winds up having lunch with the movie star of her dreams (Antonio Albanese), while Antonio is put in the unenviable position of trying to pass off a prostitute (Penélope Cruz) as his bride.
To Rome with Love gallops along at a leisurely pace, with some scenes providing laughs, and others… not. The deficiency is that the peaks are barely a notch above the valleys; when Allen first shows up on screen, reacting with neurotic humor to the announcement that his plane is entering a zone of turbulence, it takes us a few more scenes to realize that this isn’t merely a brief bit of situational humor, but actually the best stuff the film has to offer. Allen hasn’t acted since 2006′s Scoop, so his appearance has an automatically entertaining quality, but the additional members of this ensemble have less success blinding us to the screenplay’s inconsequential nature. (Some, like Page, because they’re miscast, and others, like Benigni, because they’re given preciously little to do.)
The film begins with a traffic officer (Pierluigi Marchionne) speaking into the camera while on duty, which turns out to be a damaging move for the confused off-screen drivers. He informs us that Rome is a city full of stories, and then invites us to peek in on the characters at hand. Only in retrospect does this opening appear all the more appropriate, because the film that follows it indeed feels like a series of remote sketches. It’s as if we ourselves are on-the-ground tourists, pursuing each of these people for a few blocks before coming to grips with the fact that their lives aren’t that worthy of our time or Euros.
To Rome with Love is now in limited release.
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