When he was good, he was very good.
When he was bad, he was horrible.
(It’s Woody Allen. I’m talking about Woody Allen.)
After giving us the trip of a lifetime to a movable Parisian feast last year with the delightful Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen loads up his cinematic tour bus once again, this time headed for Rome and la dolce vita.
Only, this time, it’s la disappointing vita.
Like a bus load of boorish Americans from Omaha, this movie stomps all over the scenery, checks experiences off a list, snaps a few snapshots, and heads home, leaving the locals wondering if the business was worth it.
Midnight in Paris made the viewer a Parisian for a few hours. To Rome with Love makes us tourists in shorts with a camera around our necks, stuttering high school Italian.
With a large cast, the movie follows several stories. American ex-pat Hayley (Alison Pill) has fallen for Roman Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Her parents (Woody Allen and Judy Davis) dutifully visit, causing her retired music agent father to find a new project in Michelangelo’s angel-voiced father. A newly married Italian couple (Alessandro Tibiri and Alessandra Mastronardi) chase their ambition to Rome, where she gets humorously lost and he accidentally teams up with a prostitute (Penelope Cruz).
In more bizarre storylines, a working drudge (Roberto Benigni) suddenly finds himself the focus of inexplicable and unwarranted paparazzi adoration. Across town, a successful American named John (Alec Baldwin) returns to the street where he spent a magical summer, meeting his younger self (Jesse Eisenberg as Jack) , his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) and the dangerous, damaged girl he regrets and yet doesn’t (Ellen Page).
Except maybe it’s not John’s younger self. Perhaps he’s just another mixed up young adult. Or maybe he’s Woody Allen, younger and slightly less neurotic.
You really can’t say.
The whole thing is really quite odd. Sometimes John interacts normally with the young people as a new friend met on the streets of Rome. Sometimes he soliloquizes over their actions, muttering high-falutin’ advice while they apparently don’t see or hear him. And sometimes he hovers over Jack like those good and bad angels that sit on the shoulders of Sylvester the cat and tell him whether or not to eat Tweety Bird.
Allen’s direction is embarrassingly rough, especially at the beginning of the film. Characters deliver nothing lines with all the aplomb of a high school freshman in her first play. It’s odd to see a favorite actor like Baldwin struggle over lines. In the initial interchange between John and Jack, one has to struggle to remember both actors have been nominated for Oscars.
Like a relentless tourist, the movie clicks through its checkpoints. Here we have the profound but unexplored statement of theme, something about how the ancient ruins make you feel small and melancholy. We hear how young men (and by extrapolation, old adoptive fathers) will make self-destructive decisions they know are not in their best interest, helpless in the grip of desire. We learn that instructive sex with a prostitute and a movie star –and really, what’s the difference? – will enrich a young marriage. And we explore – well, it’s not really clear – something about celebrity culture and obsession with knowing everything about our idols.
Everything feels forced and rehashed, like Woody Allen dug into his old bag of tricks, dusted some Italian over them, and let em fly.
It’s too bad because the movie has some excellent moments. Most of them involve Woody Allen himself. From the first moment he comes on camera, as a neurotic flyer panicked by the slightest bump, he fills up the screen and entertains completely. Even as a scrawny, thin-haired, 76 year old, he’s still got it. Taken alone, his caper to coerce Michelangelo’s father into the spotlight is as funny as anything he’s ever done.
Despite its occasional charm, the movie wastes its greatest character – Roma herself. Besides a few obligatory shots of the Spanish Steps or the Trevi Fountain, the movie could have happened anywhere. All that ancient and instructive humanity is lost to us.
Just as it is to the tour bus that passes through for an afternoon on the way to check the next city off the list.
To Rome with Love is rated R for sexual situations and language. The situations are verbally described, not shown, but the description is quite graphic. Not an appropriate movie for teens or children.