Is it Possible for Woody Allen to “get” Rome?

Ah Woody Allen, the quintessential New Yorker, neurotic, self-focused, consumed with triviality of details.

So can he “get” the Eternal City, a place completely uninterested in the individual? A city infused with millennia, steeped in ancient humanity, the push and pull of empire and faith?

Apparently not, if his movie To Rome with Love, is any indication. (Click through for my review.)

Manhattan, he gets. That’s a given. He captured the magic and fantasy of Paris in Midnight in Paris. He can do Los Angeles and Barcelona and London.

But Rome?

It may be too much for him.

He populated his Rome with New Yorkers, some characters actual New Yorkers imported from the States and others a Roman version of New Yorkers. Here we have a loving couple just needing a sexual escapade to launch them into the perfect marriage. There we have a comic-infused undertaker just waiting to be discovered as an opera singer. Everyone is modern and amoral and sophisticated.

But where are the nuns?

You can’t throw a cannoli in Rome without hitting a nun or priest. Yet, they are M.I.A. from Allen’s movie.  Allen’s characters frequent little cafes and walk ancient streets, but don’t enter the churches.

And that’s what Rome is all about, isn’t it? On every corner, art, monuments, cathedrals, statues, and the very framing of architecture point to humanity grappling with the universe, with God, with destiny.

Let’s start with the eight Egyptian obelisks that dot the city. For the most part, they were plundered from the more ancient Egyptian empire during the height of the Roman Empire before the Christian era, a pagan empire plundering the riches and gods of a formerly powerful and long-lasting people. There they stand, although the religion and empire that built them has long crumbled, along with the religion and empire that plundered them.

Or take the Pantheon, built by the Emperor Hadrian in 118, when the Empire seemed destined to last forever and the chorus of Roman gods the apex of all gods. Little did he suspect the seeds of revolution were already sprouting in his empire. They weren’t political revolution – that had been dealt with before, harshly – but a revolution in the very concept of what it means to be human, a revolution that would strip him and his successors of divine status and the gods of their glory.

The Panthenon in Rome

Take the Coliseum, mentioned in the movie, where adherents of a new faith would die before beasts and gladiators, or the catacombs, where the faithful hid among the dead to worship.

Roman Coliseum

Or focus on the Christian era, where corruption and faithfulness battled for a thousand years, where great glory mixed with great shame, and continues to this day. This is the awe-inspiring nature of the Vatican, with its Sistine Chapel altar wall by Michelangelo so vividly showing the struggle between Heaven and Hell, good and evil, salvation and damnation.

None of this weight of history cares much about one neurotic man’s ambition to find a new singer, nor of sexual escapades, nor of the wild and semi-regretted affair with a troubled girl.

Allen is Jewish, a people who have their own long history with Rome, but that doesn’t factor into the movie either. He works hard to avoid all mention of the transcendent.

The very thing Woody Allen specializes in – staring into the trivialities of one’s own experience to highlight the absurdity there – will not do in Rome.

In Rome, triviality washes away, along with the individual.

Allen hints at this. Two different characters bring up “ozymandias melancholi,” the melancholy brought on by the weight of ruins, the feeling that life and empires flash by and nothing lasts forever. But they only speak of it; they do not become changed by it.

Rome – and humanity in general – handles this melancholy by embracing the eternal, coming to terms with mortality, usually by finding faith.

Woody Allen handles it by doubling down on the trivial.

It seems he is incapable, when in Rome, of doing as the Romans do.

Review: ‘To Rome with Love’ Worse than Being Trapped on a Tour Bus with Ugly Americans

There once was a director who had little curl, all over his head.

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.

Midnight in Paris

Bottom Line: Woody Allen is back in his groove with the enjoyable “Midnight in Paris.”

The Gist: On a vacation in Paris, the male half of an engaged couple (Owen Wilson) finds a portal to the literary past and spends his nights drinking with Hemingway and Fitzgerald. He meets a flapper girl whose own fantasy goes even further back in Paris’s past.

The Verdict: Watch it. The fantasy of slipping into 1920s Paris with literary greats and a continual movable party delights. Less existential moping and more fantasy is definitely a good thing for Woody Allen. This movie is a platter of intellectual petits fours.

Be Aware: Rated PG-13 for some sexual references and smoking. The engaged couple clearly cohabitates and discusses sexual issues, including affairs. Sex is not shown but is occasionally discussed, but is not a big part of the film. Appropriate for some teens, depending on your family comfort with depictions of adult unmarried sexual relationships.