After a few title changes, writer-director Woody Allen settled on To Rome with Love for his latest film, a title he described as “generic” in a recent interview. If the name evokes a cinematic Valentine’s card, that’s appropriate seeing as this is a featherweight romantic comedy that begins to evaporate from one’s memory as soon as the credits roll. That’s not to say it isn’t mildly entertaining – there are enough chuckles sprinkled throughout to keep it watchable. Plus it benefits from Allen’s first onscreen appearance since Scoop in 2006. I had assumed he was done acting, so his supporting performance is a welcome return. But the film feels like a collection of idea fragments all jammed together, whether they fit or not.
To Rome with Love tells four separate stories, unrelated except for their shared Roman setting. As a travelogue, the film just might inspire some viewers to visit Italy’s capital, but the stories themselves are a decidedly mixed bag. Allen weaves them together in a somewhat haphazard manner that eventually becomes tiresome. Watching To Rome with Love, one can imagine Allen going through a big notebook full of unfinished screenplay ideas – scraps that, on their own, would never make it as feature-length films – and jamming a few of them together. Some are farcical, while others are more surreal.
In the former category, there’s the story of newlyweds Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) who are in Rome for a get-together with Antonio’s family. They haven’t yet met Milly, who has become lost in the city streets while looking for a hair salon. Enter Anna (Penelope Cruz), a prepaid prostitute sent to the wrong room. When Antonio’s family members barge into his room unannounced, they assume Anna is Milly. Unable to contact Milly, Antonio improbably (but amusingly) has Anna pose as his wife.
Meanwhile, the real Milly is up to her own hijinks after stumbling onto a movie set and striking up an acquaintance with her favorite Italian film star, Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese). This is the strongest story not only because it’s the most breezily funny, but also because it’s the least predictable. And with Cruz in such a form-fitting dress, you might find it hard to take your eyes off her long enough to read the subtitles. I know I missed more than a few lines.
Then there’s Jerry (Allen), a retired opera director, and his wife Phyllis (Judy Davis). They’re travelling to Rome to meet their daughter Hayley’s (Alison Pill) fiancé, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti), and his parents. The situation takes an initially intriguing turn when Jerry overhears Michelangelo’s father, Giancarlo, singing in the shower. Giancarlo is portrayed by real-life acclaimed opera singer Fabio Armiliato, which lends authenticity to his performance. While Allen gets laughs with some casually tossed off one-liners, the big payoff to solving Giancarlo’s performance anxiety (turns out he can only sing while in the shower) is too obvious and corny to be as funny as the director wanted it to be.
Moving into slightly experimental territory, we have John (Alec Baldwin), an architect revisiting the old haunts from his youth. He meets Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) by chance. Jack is an aspiring architect who lives (in John’s previous residence) with his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig). John spends a little time with Jack, watching him slowly become smitten with Sally’s best friend Monica (Ellen Page), who has come to visit.
While that setup may not sound especially unusual, the way Allen handles John is. Only minutes after meeting Jack and Sally, John is suddenly very chummy with his new friend. He offers counseling to Jack regarding the developing affair between he and Monica – sometimes unseen and unheard by anyone else. I wondered if the idea was that John had somehow met his younger self and was reflecting in hindsight upon poor choices. It’s hard to say for sure. What I am sure about is that Ellen Page, with her boyish figure and ultra-youthful demeanor, is totally miscast as the temptress Monica (though she gives it her all, turning in a respectable performance).
Rounding out the quartet of plot lines is the surreal overnight fame achieved by Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni), an average, ordinary, working stiff and self-described “schmuck.” The Italian media inexplicably develops an instant and insatiable fascination with Leopoldo, hanging on his every boring utterance. He is not only interviewed on TV, the paparazzi hound him relentlessly. Everyone wants him to make a statement, on what they don’t care. A sample: “Looks like rain today.” This all plays as a very broad satire of “reality” stars, famous for no reason. It’s basically one joke (and not a very original or funny one) told over and over.
Though To Rome with Love lacks the focus of 2011’s Midnight in Paris, I found it to be at least as likeable as that wildly overrated film. Neither one falls into the category of “classic Woody Allen,” but both are intermittently clever, fluffy entertainments. For a vastly underrated (and largely ignored) Allen film, check out You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010). That one may not be classic either, but it explores some weightier issues and disproves the idea that Allen has only been interested in light trifles in recent years.