Let us forgive, for now, the unoriginal sounding title, that we may judge To Rome With Love on its merits rather than its appearance. Given the clever and insightful philosophy of Woody Allen’s previous film, Midnight in Paris, his most recent love letter to a city of his affection pails in comparison. On its own, Rome is good, but not great.
To Rome With Love is basically four films in one; or rather four non-intersecting stories about life in the Eternal City. Only two of these stories are very interesting. Each is introduced – via unnecessary narration – within the opening scene of the film by a Roman traffic officer who claims somehow to see everything that happens in Rome from the center of his intersection. Why we should trust the story to a star-struck (or rather city-struck) traffic director is never explained. He’s neither old, nor does he seem particularly intelligent enough to make charming insights into the lives of his fellow Romans. But I suspect I am, as has been said, “straining the soup too thin.”
Perhaps the most inventive and charming of the four stories involves Woody Allen himself, appearing in his first film since Scoop. He’s in top shape here as a retired, paranoid, conservative, uncultured music producer in Rome to meet his future son-in-law, Michelangelo, and his family. Things begin to look up when Woody discovers Michelangelo’s father has a gorgeous operatic voice. However, it only works when he sings in the shower. This leads to some hilarious moments of truth and wholesome honesty.
Another story involves Alec Baldwin in a sort of magical realism. Seemingly reprising his role from Thomas and the Magic Railroad, he floats in and out of the lives of Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page: two people who think they’re in love, but perhaps they’re not. Watching Page and Eisenberg interact is cinema magic. Two great 21st-century actors bouncing off each other like atoms in a nuclear reactor! Allen’s writing is perfect in these scenes because we’re never quite sure what is happening. Is Alec Baldwin remembering his past as an aspiring architect in Rome? Is he a figure of Jesse Eisenberg’s imagination? Ultimately it doesn’t matter. And Woody Allen doesn’t sell out to give us the answer.
Alas, the other two-fourths of the film lack such charm and insight. In one story, a newlywed couple arriving in Rome get separated for a day. She has an encounter with a famous movie star, and he becomes the unwilling escort of a hooker played by Penelope Cruz. This section of the film is boring more than anything else. The sheepish husband has no zeal and the flirty wife seems intent upon betraying the trust of her counter-zealous husband. If only the fourth section of the film were this boring.
The last fourth of the movie involves Roberto Benigni as an ordinary fellow who is besieged by fame and wealth for a few days without any apparent reason. Though this formula delivers a few good laughs, Benigni become very old very fast. I’ve never found his “sweet” persona very amusing, and here it’s just irritating. His reactions are over the top, he seems befuddled by everything, and for all the whining he does about being famous he sure does live the high life. Maybe if a different actor had been chosen for the role this vignette might have been amusing. But as it is, it grows tiresome quite quickly. The Bible calls us to be simple but not simplistic. And that is exactly when Benigni’s character is: simplistic. How frustrating.
This is okay Allen. After Midnight in Paris this is a disappointment. However when you turn out a movie a year for forty years, as Allen has done, this is bound to happen. The film ends on a strange note, when a fat man on a balcony looks down at the Spanish Steps and claims to know more about Rome than the traffic director. Fortunately we leaves these two egos to duke it out on their own. I doubt either know very much about Rome. I sort of doubt that Woody Allen does either; however this new trend of his involving romantic European cities is intriguing. Perhaps his next film will be called Athens a la Carte.