Well this is awkward...
Every new Woody Allen film is haunted by the ghosts of those long gone. The mediocre films are trashed because they’re not great, while the good are either shrugged off because they’re not as good as the ones from the time when he could do no wrong, or hailed as a sparkling return to form.
Allen has had several such returns to form in the past few years, but he’s never followed it up with a consistent string of excellent movies, though the last few have come close. The fine Vicky Cristina Barcelona was followed by the middling Whatever Works, but his two next films, the nicely acidic You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger and the Oscar nominated Midnight In Paris suggested that maybe, just maybe, the painful feeling of apprehension that longtime fans of Allen experienced whenever they sat down to watch one of his movies - would this be a good one or a stinker? - might finally be lifted.
Set entirely in Rome, the movie switches back and forth between four different stories of wildly varying tone. Newly married Italian innocents Antonio and Milly (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronadi) are desperate to impress Antonio’s stuffy Roman relatives, but become embroiled in a farce of mistaken identity. Milly gets lost in Rome, eventually drawn to a film set starring her favourite actor, who promptly seduces her, while Antonio is saddled with Penelope Cruz’s Anna, a prostitute who agrees to impersonate Milly for the day. It’s agreeable enough, but the story just ambles along, never really kicking into the farce with enough vigour to draw more than a chuckle when a roaring belly laugh is what’s required.
The second story sees Allen act in one of his own films for the first time in a few years, and the intervening time seems to have slowed him down by a slight, but noticeable, degree. His delivery, that was always so fast and expressive, now seems to plod rather than skip along, and you can’t help but wish he had kept himself off screen. He and wife Phyllis (Judy Davis) are in Rome to meet their daughter Hayley (Alison Pill) and her Italian fiancée, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Discovering his prospective son-in-law’s mortician father has an incredibly beautiful operatic singing voice, Allen is determined to break out from a retirement he associates with impending death, and resolves to make the reluctant undertaker a star. The only fly in the ointment is that he can only sing in the shower. If you’ve guessed the punchline is that we will see a full blown opera production while the star scrubs himself clean on stage under a mobile shower cubicle, well done. It’s not a bad joke, but it’s asking an awful lot for it to prop up one quarter of the movie.
Roberto Benigni plays a bewildered middle class mouse suddenly propelled to stardom for no apparent reason by a fickle media. Utterly confused, he is eventually told by a chauffeur who seems to know more than he does about the reasons why he’s now trailed by paparazzi everywhere and quizzed about his slightest move that he is “famous for being famous”. After sleeping with a sudden flurry of beautiful women who now find his fame makes him irresistible he finds his fame ends as quickly as it started when a passing bus driver becomes the new object of media fascination. The withdrawal symptoms after mainlining attention hit hard, and Allen’s take on the relative joys of fame and anonymity are refreshingly honest. Everybody’s life has problems, but it’s much better to not have to wait in line at restaurants like a regular schmuck. It’s a neatly acerbic take on modern celebrity, but, like the Woody Allen segment, it’s stretched pretty thinly.
The most impressive segment follows John (Alec Baldwin), an architect revisiting the Rome he lived in when he was a student, and full of high minded dreams. He runs into Jack, (Jesse Eisenberg) a student that might very well be himself thirty years before. John becomes a fixture on Jack’s shoulder, constantly warning him away from the attentions of the flighty, pretentious Monica (Ellen Page) and back into the arms of his more stable girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig). Baldwin’s waspish eyerolling and muttered cries of “Bullshit” while Eisenberg eats up every wincingly pretentious thing Page says is a delight, and the look of baleful regret with which he seems to look at his younger self and compares the vigour and ideals of youth to his profitable but hollow life designing shopping malls is the closest the film comes to a moving insight into one of its characters.
It would be nice to say that the four stories combine to form something greater, but there’s no connection between any of them, and as the film goes on you get the feeling these are mostly ideas scribbled on notes he retrieved from the back of the sofa when no greater inspiration would come. There’s very little depth to proceedings, not enough laughs to hold your attention, and nothing of Rome is seen that couldn’t be gleaned from the cheapest of postcards. But as always with a dud Allen film, there’s always the next one to look forward to.
To Rome With Love official website