Woody Allen's first movie set in Italy was originally titled "Bop Decameron." Bad idea. The four interwoven stories set in Rome hardly bear comparison even with the so-so omnibus film Boccaccio 70, let alone with the actual tales of the country's second most famous writer. Nonetheless the best scenes are the ones completely in Italian, which play out longer than the Spanish ones in Vicky Cristina. The half of the movie involving Americans stumbling around Roman tourist spots is on the lame side. Luckily the alternation of story lines is rapid and farcical enough to keep uncritical viewers happy, but despite the reliably gorgeous settings, this is not Woody's best recent work.
To Rome with Love is well below the level of Match Point or Midnight in Paris; likely to be remembered only for several unrelated shticks. The theme of the opera singer who can only perform well on stage in a simulated shower stall is utterly silly, but is carried through on a grand scale. A spoof on Italians' obsession with reality TV involving Roberto Benigni is distinctive and timely, especially given Matteo Garrone's splash at Cannes this year with his feature Reality, focused in a more serious way on the same theme. It's routine for the Italian comic and shows off his improv skills to too little advantage (see him instead in his two turns for Jim Jarmusch). The jittery everyman role he plays suits him to a T, but the whole episode lacks the necessary perspective and irony. The opera singer is, well, an opera singer (Fabio Armiliato), but the douche-on-stage shtick would wear out very fast were it not for his lovely tenor voice, as does Allen's own turn as a now-retired kvetch who's the offbeat opera impresario promoting the douche act. Once again unthinking viewers, as with Midnight in Paris, will simply enjoy the camera's touristy ogling, which keeps honing in on such over-familiar venues as the Spanish Steps and the Sistine Chapel, accompanied by corny, dated theme songs like "Volare" and "Arrivederci Roma." Those in need of a truly original or finely turned tale will do better to look elsewhere.
None of the tales are related. In one all-Italian one, a provincial couple check into a fancy Rome hotel on their honeymoon and promptly get separated. The bride (Alessandra Mastronardi) is scooped up by a fat, lecherous Italian movie star (Antonio Albanese). Penelope Cruz, as a louche prostitute, bursts in on the groom (Alessandro Tiberi) by mistake, and when his in-laws show up, he has to pass her off as his wife.
Rome is one of the world's great movie capitals, and one associated with comedy and farce. The scenes of the bride and groom -- as well as those of Benigni being suddenly taken up as an ordinary man deemed worthy of having his every action from breakfast toast to boxer shorts to shaving methods reported to the whole nation -- blend the Roman silliness with a shot of Fellini-esque surrealism and a timely reference to the country's real obsession with junky TV reality shows. When these two stories are on screen it feels like we're in the world of Italian cinema. These are all good comic actors, and they seem to fit their roles better than any of the Americans fit theirs.
When Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page are competing for the attention of the physically unimpressive Jesse Eisenberg (as a young architect on a fellowship) with Alec Baldwin as an inexplicably half-real, half fantasy super-ego, we are not in any world that really matters, and Page and Gerwig, along with Judy Davis as Allen's wife, are among the actors whose work is wasted in the movie. In spite of the glitzy, bright, prettified look of the Rome shots, the camera is not kind to anyone in this American subplot but Baldwin; it seems to shrink the others. The Italians in the American-dominated stories are unimpressive too. Allen doesn't seem to appreciate that in an omnibus comedy collection minor characters shouldn't just be ciphers; they should all be funny.
Baldwin warns Eisenberg against Ellen Page, who comes to visit his girlfriend Greta Gerwig. Page is an actress, a pseudo-intellectual, and a liar. But this portrait is sketchy and unconvincing. The wispy Page seems almost wholly unsuited to the idea of a brassy, fake seductress. Gerwig's character is too little developed to establish that she is the better, more trustworthy mate. When, despite Baldwin's repeated warnings, Eisenberg gives in to temptation and woos Page, Page gets a movie offer and quickly departs. Do we care?
The opera-singing-that-is-good-only-in-the-shower story is its own reward. Allen has it play out, and then it's over. Only the two all-Italian stories have real payoffs. Benigni prays to be left alone, and then, with a comic poignancy that might have been truly touching in the hands of a great Italian director (De Sica, perhaps, collaborating with Fellini), when he's dropped from public attention he feels lost and empty. The bride and groom, after several good scenes, especially one in which the bride's seduction by the fat actor is broken off by a hotel burglar, are happily reunited and decide to leave the big city, a classic comedy finale.
In the prevailing mode these days, Allen seems to have decided to succeed by excess -- excess of storytelling. Boccaccio 70 had only four separate tales, but Allen feels compelled to constantly intermix his to cover the fact that not one of them is truly engaging and nothing holds them together, certainly not the superficial device of a Piazza di Spagna traffic cop who "comments" on the action, like the major domo in Grand Hotel, but without an unforgettable signature line ("People come, people go, nothing ever happens"). This movie is busy-busy-busy, but lacks a unifying vision.
While Midnight in Paris had an inspired fantasy behind it, into which Allen blended a series of romances and amusing recreations of 'Twenties Paris cultural icons, To Rome with at Love at best momentarily evokes Italian movies. It hasn't anything perceptive to say about Rome or Italy. Midnight in Paris was not a brilliant statement about France either. But it did evoke the city as a bygone expatriate mecca, and its theme of nostalgia for other times was nicely developed. To Rome with Love has no theme and no consistent vision. It shows that the tireless 76-year-old Woody is still inventive -- perhaps too much so. He might do well to settle down and take a good long look at his story's setting for once. His endlessly productive career as a writer-director is hit or miss. We can only hope he will hit next time.
To Rome with Love was first released in Italy April 20, 2012 in a version dubbed entirely in Italian. That might be an improvement, all things considered. But this Italian review (by Davide De Lucca) suggests otherwise: "In Allen's pilgrimages far from New York, with the common thread of love, Venice has been a city of music and encounters, London a place of crime-and-punishment and magic, Barcelona a fountain of passion and sensuality, Paris the theater for an ideal past brought back to life. Now Rome has become the stage for four flat, colorless, insipid stories, brought to the screen by an ever less sharp tourist-director (regista-turista) . ." Ouch! This critic is unimpressed by the bride and groom episode, finding its evocation of Sixties Italian movie comedy tone-deaf. I may be more indulgent toward it because it's a relief from Allen's gratingly touristic and one-note American characters. The movie went into limited US release June 22, 2012. It opens in France July 4. (UK not yet announced.)
©2012 Chris Knipp
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