Woody Allen’s long European trip takes him to the Eternal City and back to some early influences…
Continuing on his latter-day tour around Europe, Woody Allen follows his recent visits to Barcelona (Vicki Christina Barcelona), London (Match Point, Scoop) and Paris (Paris After Midnight) with a stopover in Rome, and not entirely surprisingly, his view of the Eternal City as a place of many stories where miracles can happen is scarcely any more realistic or in touch with everyday life on the streets of Italian people than his romanticised views of the other European cities. But then, when did you ever watch a Woody Allen film for social realism? Rather, you watch them precisely for the filmmaker’s unique outlook on the world and hope that it might be one of his funnier films. Considered on those terms, it has to be said that To Rome With Love is not the greatest Woody Allen film ever, but there are a few pleasant surprises to be found here.
If you were to be totally honest however, you’d have to admit that if it were by any other filmmaker, To Rome With Love would have to be considered a bit of a mess. Even by Woody Allen standards, the four unrelated short stories (or tall tales) that make up the film are lazily populated by familiar figures – mostly American tourists and expatriates but one or two stock Italians – with barely an ounce of genuine characterisation between them, quipping smart lines and falling in love with the wrong people. What’s interesting about this familiar arrangement – one albeit in a location outside the director’s usual Manhattan setting – is that in relating it back to Rome, and consequently relating it back to some of his cinematic influences, Allen also seems to get back in touch with the spirit of those “earlier funny movies”.
It’s almost embarrassing however to have to try to describe the four main storylines that make up To Rome With Love, so lacking are they in anything like an original idea. The influence of Fellini, and specifically The White Sheik, hangs over the story of Antonio and Millie (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi), two young newlywed Italians from the provinces who arrive in Rome hoping to starting a new life together in the big city, where Antonio has the opportunity of a good job if he can impress the rather stuffy relatives. That seems unlikely when Millie gets lost, finds herself on a film set being wooed by the lead actor and Antonio gets caught in the clutches of a sexy prostitute (Penelope Cruz) who has mistakenly wandered into his room. Happens all the time. The second story is of Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) a young American studying to be an architect in Rome who finds himself falling for his girlfriend’s sexy best friend (Ellen Page) who has just come to visit, despite the advice of John (Alex Baldwin) – appearing mystically like a Play It Again Sam-like wise confidant – a famous architect who has been in this territory before and made the same mistakes decades previously.
You know the old story about people who think they are great singers, but only within the confines of their own bathroom? Well, Allen does that old chestnut in relation to – what else? – Italian opera, when undertaker Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato, a famous opera tenor in real-life), is discovered by avant-garde theatre impresario (Woody Allen), who wants to put him on the stage. The only problem is that Giancarlo only sounds great while he is in the shower (…you can see where that one’s going). The fourth story is another zero to hero story, where an ordinary office-worker, Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) is suddenly propelled into the limelight as a celebrity on the whim of the media. Hounded by the press looking for interviews about what he had for breakfast, Leopoldo finds however that his new-found fame also has considerable benefits when it comes to getting a table at exclusive restaurants, getting invites to movie premieres and getting into bed with gorgeous models.
There’s nothing particularly new in any of these stories, and there’s nothing particularly clever or original in the means by which Allen puts them across in a Roman setting rather than a New York one. The dialogue is appalling, as it has been for a long time in Woody Allen films, the scripting obvious and expositional, with little that’s insightful and, worse, not much that’s funny either. On the other hand, there’s actually a wonderful consistency to the stories which weave well together without any needlessly complicated and contrived crossing over of the characters. What’s most pleasing however is how Allen touches on familiar themes parodying celebrity lifestyles, relationships and the downside of getting what you think you want and in the process he manages to evoke welcome elements of classic Woody Allen films (Play It Again Sam, Annie Hall, Manhattan), some of his absurd early comedies (Bananas), and even some of his Fellini-influenced depictions of the trappings of celebrity (Stardust Memories and Celebrity).
To Rome With Love, it must be said, is a pale shadow of those earlier films, and although Darius Khondji does his best to bring some style to the film with some gorgeous photography of a golden sunset-tinted Rome that helps hold these stories together, it’s all a bit messy and haphazard. At its best however – particularly whenever Allen himself is on the screen (it’s been a while) or the like-minded Italian absurdist comedian Roberto Benigni – there are some great moments to enjoy here. It’s not much, but if you’re a fan, you take what little pleasures you get with Woody Allen films these days and enjoy them for what they are. The non-converted however shouldn’t go anywhere near this.
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum