Woody Allen continues his European tour with a romantic trip to Italy.
His tour began with Match Point in 2005, one of his best films in years, and that led to the less successful Scoop and Cassandra’s Dream, all three set in the UK. He next moved to Spain for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, back to New York for Whatever Works, back to London for You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, and then to France for last year’s Midnight in Paris.
Allen walks a funny line in his Europe-set films. He is both the Ugly American and a Continental Op, searching for humor and truth in sophisticated environs, like a well-heeled tourist. He is far beyond pretending to commune with the lower classes; he’s exhausted that barrel of inspiration, in the same way that he’s mined the nostalgic territory of his own youth.
He pushed beyond his own limitations with Midnight in Paris, a soulful, wistful rumination of the boundaries of nostalgia, almost a summing up of the perils of always thinking that the unreachable past must certainly have been superior to the drudgeries of ordinary modern life.
All of which makes To Rome With Love, the latest result of his far-flung financing expeditions, feel like a mixed bag, or, to be more precise, a random collection of relationship riffs and meandering thoughts on the perils of celebrity and the temptations of desire. The tourist touches are confined to the opening musical selection of “Volare” and just a couple of historical touchstones.
The film plunges quickly into a whirlwind of episodes that will be revisited throughout the running time; the episodes have nothing to do with one another, and precious little to do with modern Rome, or the way that most people live their lives. Instead, we get snapshots of love affairs at various stages.
The most successfully realized, though still awkwardly unfulfilling, is the one that revolves around Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) and Sally (Greta Gerwig), a nice American couple living in Rome who are visited by Sally’s good friend Monica (Ellen Page), an actress recovering from a break-up. Naturally, Monica is neurotic, which makes her a good match for the equally neurotic Jack; they are prototypical Woody Allen characters, two people who are irresistibly drawn together even though their romance will ultimately both themselves and others within their circle of attraction.
In the years since Allen aged out of the leading man roles that he was writing, a series of actors have taken up the mantle of “Woody stand-in,” or the role we imagine Allen would play if he were younger. Here, both Eisenberg and Page take on the Allen persona: witty, intelligent, self-deprecating, self-involved, and kind of dynamite together. The juice between the two actors is sufficiently charged to make up for the routine nature of their relationship.
But we have a third “Woody stand-in” because Allen himself takes a role for the first time in six years. As Jerry, a former opera director and impresario, he is visiting Rome with his wife Phyllis (Judy Davis) in order to meet the future in-laws of their daughter Hayley (Alison Pill), who is getting married to a local. It turns out that Hayley’s future father-in-law (Fabio Armiliato), a mortician, has a magnificent singing voice, and that prompts the recently retired Jerry to push him to do something. Mostly, Jerry is bored by retirement and is not terribly satisfied with his own career accomplishments.
There are two other story strains as well. Young married couple Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) are visiting Rome from the countryside so Antonio can interview for a job in the city. Milly gets lost on a quick trip to a hair stylist, and, while she’s gone, somehow Antonio ends up pretending to his relatives that a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) is his wife. Meanwhile, Milly wanders onto a film set and catches the eye of a film star.
Finally, Roberto Benigni plays an ordinary man who draws the attention of the paparazzi for no reason at all, except for Allen to explore the ill effects of fame for everyday citizens.
It’s a busy film — I didn’t even mention Alec Baldwin, who pops up as a one-man Greek chorus to advise, counsel, and criticize Jack in his attempt at romance — and it’s frequently funny. It’s lovingly photographed by the very talented Darius Khondji. On the whole, however, it feels overwhelmingly perfunctory.
Two of the episodes (Jack / Sally / Monica / Alec Baldwin, and Jerry and his family), hold greater promise than the others, but the ideas are undeveloped beyond the telling of a few jokes. Mostly, I wished that Mr. Allen had run the script through his typewriter another time or two, winnowing out the parts that don’t work and exploring further the ones that do.
As it is, To Rome With Love is an agreeable, though unexceptional, experience.
To Rome With Love opens today, Friday, July 6, at Landmark Magnolia, Angelika Plano, Ft. Worth Modern Art, AMC Grapevine, AMC Mesquite, AMC Stonebriar, AMC Valley View, Cinemark Legacy 24, Cinemark Webb Chapel, Tinseltown 17, Regal Grand Prairie 10, and Rave Ridgemar 13.