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After lighting up the City of Lights in Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen takes his talents to Rome for another ensemble comedy, To Rome with Love. Although it’s packed with talent (and features Allen’s return to acting for the first time since 2006’s Scoop), it’s sloppily constructed and provides only fitful moments of entertainment.
Composed of four disconnected, Rome-set stories, To Rome with Love opens with Hayley (Alison Pill), an American tourist in Rome, meeting Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti), an Italian lawyer. Fast forward a few months, and the two are engaged. Hayley flies her parents, psychiatrist Phyllis (Judy Davis) and retired opera director Jerry (Allen), to Italy to meet her fiance and his family.
Meanwhile, Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) are newlyweds visiting Rome so Antonio can meet with his aristocratic relatives about a new job. But she gets lost on the way to the salon, and a prostitute (Penelope Cruz), who stumbles into Antonio’s room by mistake, becomes Antonio’s wife for the day.
The biggest storyline follows Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), an aspiring architect living in Rome with his student girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig), whose friend Monica (Ellen Page) comes to stay with them after a breakup. We’re told Monica oozes sex appeal and draws men to her like magic, but Jack isn’t biting — at least at first. After spending some time with Monica, he starts to see what Sally and others see in her. Fortunately, a fellow architect, John (Alec Baldwin), is with him every step of the way planting ideas in his head and trying to steer him in the right direction.
Finally, there’s an incredibly farcical but misguided vignette about an ordinary man, Leopoldo, (Roberto Benigni), who suddenly becomes the most famous man in Italy. While the other three stories have their flaws, none approaches the awfulness that is the Benigni material. There’s nothing surprising about it, and Benigni’s antics easily outstay their welcome. It’s not long before Leopoldo starts cheating on his wife, and the guy loses his everyman quality, which was the only thing connecting him to us in the first place. It’s just a mess.
The Eisenberg/Gerwig/Page/Baldwin stuff, too, is less than appealing. John’s inclusion is particularly mystifying as Allen never establishes any rules for him. Presumably, everyone in the film can see him, but Jack’s and Monica’s conversations with him give off the air of privacy. Allen, working in the home of some of his cinematic heroes, seems to be going for some sort of Fellini-esque surrealism, but it’s not delved into nearly enough to live up to such lofty comparisons.
Of course, it never helps to have one of cinema’s most irritating actresses at her most irritating. Ellen Page is worse here than she was in Juno, and whoever thought it was a good idea to give her the role of the irresistible sexpot (especially when she’s playing opposite the conveniently all-covered-up Greta Gerwig), must have been smoking some good stuff. The only plus to this storyline is the impossible-to-hide snark Allen’s screenplay shows toward faux intellectuals — you know, the people who hide behind a few choice obscure pop culture references …
You’ll find To Rome with Love‘s few minor pleasures in the two stories so far undiscussed. Frankly, it’s fantastic for a Woody Allen devotee like myself to see the man in front of a camera again. It’d be nice if the film was a little better, but it fails through no fault of his (or Judy Davis’) acting. Allen’s tank of neuroses is filled to the brim and ready to overflow, while Davis spews sarcasm from her acid tongue. The story itself ultimately devolves into a one-off visual gag that falls flat on its many repeat appearances. But still, in a sea of bile, something modestly successful begins to feel almost Oscar-worthy.
That’s where the Antonio/Milly material comes in. As a short film, it’d be good; in the context of To Rome with Love, it feels exceptional. Sure, it’s set up on a series of coincidences and contrivances, but once it gets going, it breezes along quite well. Cruz is nowhere near as good as she was in Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, for which she won an Oscar, but her generally deadpan delivery and blunt sexuality is pretty on-point. And both Tiberi and Mastronardi, who play Antonio and Milly, are display sweet screen personalities. Not once when the film focused on this group of people did it feel like it was spinning its wheels.
So besides that and some cool cinematographic flourishes from the great Darius Khondji (see also: Se7en, Panic Room, Midnight in Paris), To Rome with Love is a waste of time and talent. Allen has proven unable to follow up his few late-career successes (Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) with another success, but at least this one isn’t as bad as some of his worst films, such as You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and Melinda and Melinda. Even better is that he’s now gotten a shitty movie out of his system. Here’s hoping a return to New York (and the presence of Andrew Dice Clay and Louis C.K. of all people) is what he needs to knock it out of the park once again.