‘To Rome With Love’ Review
Unlike any other filmmaker, Woody Allen both benefits and suffers from our knowledge of the author. We know his work habits, pumping out a new title each season like a dressmaker's line, keeping takes to a minimum and wrapping each day in time for an early dinner. When a transition seems forced or a joke doesn't land we think, “C'mon Woody, put in the extra effort.”
On the other hand, the sometimes overly patrician dialogue or far-fetched relationship entanglement will seem extra pungent, knowing how it fits into his larger oeuvre, and we'll find ourselves being overly kind. Maybe he should retire/oh, I hope he never retires. This is the internal debate going through my mind when I watch a lesser, albeit entertaining Woody Allen film like 'To Rome With Love.'
Using Rome as a backdrop (because he likes to travel and Europe bankrolls his films) this new one takes four stories and cuts between them. They don't intertwine, but they work as something of twin companion pieces.
Two of the stories deal with fame. In one, which feels very much like one of Woody's “New Yorker” pieces, Roberto Benigni (hey, good to see this guy again!) plays an average mope who is ignored at work and at home and lives a life surrounded by the white noise of celebrity adulation. One day, inexplicably, he is a major celebrity. He gets to cut to the head of the line and has women throwing themselves at him, but he has no privacy and is driven mad. But not so mad as when the fame is taken away.
In a second story, Woody Allen and Judy Davis fly to Rome to meet their daughter (Alison Pill's) fiancee. Allen is officially playing the confused old man now – he's no longer an urbane wit, just a nudnik. Pill's would-be father-in-law is a natural opera talent and Allen plays a retired music industry insider. Of course, he refuses to fully retire, equating this with death. (Sound familiar?) He begins to push the man's career, but soon learns that he can only sing in the shower.
In the third tale a newly married couple from rural Italy move to Rome. The bride quickly gets lost in the labyrinthine streets and by the time the couple are reunited they've both had carnal trysts that, in the most European spirit, helps their blossoming marriage. It's a very...horny section of the film, which is kinda awesome when you cut back to the Woody scenes and see the clueless, crypt-keeper man he's playing.
Finally, Alec Baldwin meets his younger self (in a somewhat literal way) in Jesse Eisenberg, a young architecture student. His girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) invites her newly single best pal (Ellen Page) to stay with them and Baldwin does what he can to prevent Eisenberg from getting his heart broken. This is the one story of the four that has the most oomph in it, reminiscent as it is of a Philip Roth novella. In addition to playing with reality, it adeptly swings between anger and whimsy. It also features a genius exchange that probably won't get topped this year: as Eisenberg concludes that perhaps Baldwin knows best he offers “with age comes wisdom.” Baldwin shakes his head no. “With age comes exhaustion,” he responds.
Unfortunately for every morsel of excellence come a half-dozen sour notes. Scenes drop off, lines hang in the air and some of Woody's confused geriatric schtick is just...well, let's just say it could use some fine tuning. That's not what he's going to give us. By the time he's in the editing room he's bored – he's copped to this, and, frankly, who are we to make demands of an artist this important? It's a miracle he's making movies at all.
Woody Allen's films are a lot like pizza, to keep the metaphor Italian. Even when they're bad they're good. 'To Rome With Love' will hardly be first on anyone's lips when discussing this great titan of cinema's master strokes, but fans of his high tax bracket comedies or of the actors in its ensemble cast ought to find something worth snacking on. I laughed at 'To Rome With Love,' and perhaps even assigned it some deeper meaning considering its venerable source, but I won't cry foul if you neglect to take this trip.
‘To Rome With Love’ hits theaters on June 22nd
Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at Hearst Digital’s UGO for four years and currently contributes to SlashFilm, MTV’s NextMovie and StarTrek.com. He’s made two marginally successful independent movies, is a member of the New York Film Critics Online and was named IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast in 2004. Follow him on Twitter at @JHoffman6.