[Review] – To Rome With Love

2 Jul

Title: To Rome With Love
Year: 2012
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penélope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page, Alison Pill
MPAA Rating: R, some sexual references
Runtime: 102 min
IMDb Rating: 6.1
Rotten Tomatoes: 51%
Metacritic: 55

I open pretty much every review I make of a Woody Allen film with me saying that I’m an unapologetic fanboy of the director, and that he’s one of the most unique voices in modern cinema, and that, not only that, but he’s absolutely prolific, giving us a movie a year like clockwork every year since 1982, and without any signs of stopping or slowing down at 76.

I also liked to recount what the past decade had been like for Mr. Allen, because most people seemed to be kind of detractors of his body of work during the last ten years or so, mostly because the new millennium started out with him giving us films as forgettable as Melinda and Melinda or The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. But then in the middle of the last decade he decided to move from New York to Europe to make films, and it seemed like it reinvigorated him, especially with what we saw in Match Point, which got him an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

I used to recount all of that stuff because I wanted to illustrate that the response to Mr. Allen’s body of work during the past decade had been decidedly lukewarm, some people saying he wasn’t the same, and that his magic had gone away. But it seems like that’s not worth noting any more, since last year he silenced every one of those critics with Midnight in Paris, which became one of his most critically beloved movies, his highest-grossing one commercially, got nominated for four Oscars, winning one for Mr. Allen’s screenplay (his fourth overall, and first since 1987), and had everyone agreeing that this was the Woody Allen we all knew and love. I gave that film an A at the time I saw it, and it ended up ranked as my 14th favorite film of last year, though were I to reassess my rankings and grades, it would definitely be an A+ and be ranked way higher; it’s just infinitely rewatchable.

The thing is, with Midnight in Paris he kind of had everyone in his bandwagon again, so of course it would be interesting to see how he followed that up. We found out that he again would be staying in Europe, this time relocating to Rome, and, most exciting of all, he’d be back in front of the camera, acting in one of his movies for the first time since Scoop, back in 2006. Also worth getting pretty excited about, he cast actors such as Ellen Page, Jesse Eisenberg and Greta Gerwig, all of whom not only are huge personal favorites of mine, but seemed like totally natural choices to handle the classic Woody Allen dialogue. So, yeah, I was pretty excited about To Rome with Love.

Having now actually seen the film, however, I’m kind of sad to report that this isn’t Mr. Allen working at the same level as he was last year. I mean, don’t get me wrong, this is still a pretty good film, and the moments when it works it really works, but the fact is that those successful moments didn’t come often enough for my liking. The film is told in vignettes all happening around the the Eternal City, some Italian and some American, and detailing the romances and predicaments they all get into.

There’s a little bit of everything in this film, from comedy, to romance, to satire, to fantasy. We get four stories, of which one just didn’t work for me at all. And the fact is that by getting four stories told in just over 100 minutes, we’re obviously not bound to get that much depth in the exploration of each one of them. But Woody Allen is a guy who writes such great dialogue, and that has made so many truly classic films that he can pretty much get whomever he wants to star in his films, and having all these big names here works to the movie’s advantage because, in a way, we feel like we already know these characters.

I still feel like this one’s far too all over the place for me to give it a grade in the A-range, like I would like to, because it does feel lazy and underdeveloped, no matter how much I liked it in the end. There are a lot of ideas that haven’t been developed to their fullest extent, a lot of times in which the movie meanders and you feel like it doesn’t really know what it wants to accomplish. However, there are also times in which even though you feel Mr. Allen is pulling stuff out he’s used before it works like crazy, and that sense that the movie’s just aimlessly going through works at times. This is one of those cases in which you realize that even “minor” Woody Allen still makes for a perfectly enjoyable film.

There were two stories in To Rome with Love that I really responded to. One, the one I just absolutely loved, had Jesse Eisenberg, who’s like the young Woody Allen in too many ways, playing Jack, this architecture student who lives with his girlfriend, played by Greta Gerwig, who invites her best friend, played by Ellen Page, to crash at their place. And then a love triangle ensues. Alec Baldwin also stars in this story as John, an architect himself, vacationing in Rome, where he studied, and he offers advice to Jack.

Like I said, this one has a bit of everything, including some fantasy, and this is the story in which that takes place. Because at first it seems as though Mr. Baldwin is just trying to offer up some advice to a guy that reminds him of his younger self. But then John just kind of materializes at will whenever he wants to offer advice only Jack can hear, and it becomes clear that Mr. Allen is dabbling in some fantasy elements he likes so much, with John either remembering stuff when he was a student and how he would change it, or Jack imagining an older version of himself offering him advice. It’s just really well done, and Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Eisenberg are perfect with the material and have terrific chemistry.

The other vignette I really appreciated, though definitely less so, was the one that starred Mr. Allen himself. Playing Jerry, a retired opera director, who goes to Rome with his wife, played by Judy Davis in her fifth Woody Allen film, to meet the man their daughter, played by Alison Pill, is set to marry. Jerry isn’t that fond of his son-in-law to-be, but then he hears him singing in the shower and insists that he let him make him the newest opera sensation in the world. This worked for me because it’s typical kooky Woody Allen, and as usual he’s great with his own dialogue, and even though uneven at times, the ending of this particular story is pretty damn fun.

A third story, one that didn’t do anything for me, features an Italian couple visiting Rome for the bride-to-be to get to know her fiancé’s family. And then they get entangled in a story full of mistaken identities, with her meeting her favorite movie star, and him mistakenly getting a prostitute, played by Penélope Cruz, who was meant as a gift for someone else, and having to pass her off as her fiancé to his family.

Then we have the fourth story, which is the one that I really didn’t like. It asks questions about the notion of fame and success and what it really all means, and stars Roberto Benigni as Leopoldo Pisanello a man that literally experiences overnight fame coming to him, waking up one day to find himself followed by paparazzi and being questioned by everyone about the most ordinary little things of his life. This storyline just doesn’t pay off at all. Mr. Allen obviously has opinions about what fame really means, but he can’t get to them here, and Mr. Benigni is charming for all of five minutes and then quickly grows to be pretty tiring.

Once again Woody Allen is working in Europe, and once again it feels like he’s making an homage to the city, and the way it’s shot by Darius Khondji makes you want to buy a plane ticket straight away. And even though there are a lot of ideas here, there’s just not enough time to explore them as fully as they deserve to be. Sure, this isn’t classic Woody Allen, but they honestly can’t all be that, we should just be plenty thankful that he’s still making films at all. And, like I said, he’s not only still making them, but he’s making one a year, and the one he has lined up for next year, for which he’s coming back to America to shoot in San Francisco, already has a great cast lined up, including Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin again, and, most excitingly, Louis C.K.. So yeah, let’s be thankful he’s still around.

Grade: B+

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