Film Review – To Rome With Love
There are very few filmmakers who can capture the romanticism of a city better than Woody Allen. From his hometown of New York City to London and Paris, Woody knows how to make a beautiful place look even better on film. With his newest project, To Rome With Love (2012), he has yet again given us a gorgeous backdrop, this time centered in the heart of the Italian city. From grand areas like the historic Coliseum to small coffee shops tucked around cobblestone streets, there’s not a shot in the film that isn’t appealing to the eye. And yet, while the visual aesthetic is as good as any film you’d find from Woody, there is an element that is noticeably missing. The magic that made Midnight in Paris (2011) such a success did not transfer to this, resulting in an enjoyable yet lesser Woody Allen effort.
An opening narration explains that Rome is a city filled with many different stories from many different kinds of people. That is exactly what happens here, as Woody presents a collage of different stories unrelated to one another, but similar in theme. The usual “Woody Allen Topics” are visited: the absurdities of love, commitment, art, fame, and death are all thrown into the bag, and played with throughout the many colorful story arcs. I was often reminded of his film Everyone Says I Love You (1996) in the way we see these ideas develop in the various different levels. This film does not touch the greatness that his musical did, but has a similar feel that makes it a charming experience, even if it seems to be more of a light distraction than a memorable cinematic viewing.
Overall, the cast does a good job with the roles they are given. There are many people we meet: Jesse Eisenberg plays Jack, an architecture student who is tempted by the charisma of his girlfriend’s best friend, actress Monica (Ellen Page), while Alec Baldwin plays the muse who tries to keep him on the straight and narrow. Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) is a young businessman whose attempts to impress his family are put in jeopardy when the prostitute Anna (Penelope Cruz) gets mistaken for his lover. Antonio’s real wife, Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi), gets lost in the city and somehow finds herself in the lustful eye of the Italian movie star Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese). These three plots are entertaining in their own ways—dealing with extreme lust and temptation—but each contains a level of contrivance that makes it difficult to grasp onto, regardless of whether or not the surreal quality was intended.
The two best story threads involve Roberto Benigni and Woody Allen himself. First, it has been five films and six years since we last saw Woody act, in the disappointing Scoop (2006). I am a confessed Woody-as-an-actor fan, and to see him back on screen was a welcome return. It felt as though he hadn’t missed a step—the quirky ticks and geeky neuroses are all there. Here he plays Jerry, a retired orchestra conductor traveling to Rome to visit with his soon-to-be in-laws. When he realizes that his son-in-law’s father has the potential to be a great opera singer, Jerry takes it upon himself to push him to stardom. I don’t want to give too much away, because how Jerry goes about doing this makes for some of the film’s best laughs. I liked the way Woody crafted this particular story without any regard to reality, and delved shamelessly into its absurd nature. On a side note, it was also good to see Judy Davis—another Woody Allen regular—cast to play Jerry’s disapproving wife Phyllis. Seeing Davis and Allen click together will remind viewers of their past work as team, and hopefully this is just a starting point to have that collaboration start up again.
What happens to Roberto Benigni’s character Leopoldo is the most fascinating aspect of the movie. For the most part, Leopoldo is a regular working family man, going about his business and never intruding upon anyone else. That all changes when he steps out of his home and gets bombarded by paparazzi. For no apparent reason, Leopoldo becomes famous for simply being famous. Reporters and journalists ask him mundane and uninteresting questions about his life, from what he ate in the morning to how he likes his hair cut. Getting a shave becomes a front page headline, and fashion gurus go crazy with excitement over whatever he and his wife wear to work. Benigni was perfectly cast to play this part. He knows how to play a state of confusion and disorientation, and his utter bewilderment over why people care so much about him makes for the film’s most entertaining moments. What’s really funny is how we can compare what happens to Leopoldo to what happens to just about anybody who receives their fifteen minutes of fame, and realize that it’s not really that outlandish at all.
There are many things to like about To Rome With Love, but not enough to make it stand out from Woody’s more middle-of-the-road output. Much of what happens we’ve seen before in better films. Many of the plots do not feel natural in the way they play out, a few resolutions felt forced, and by the end I had a feeling of wanting more. But that’s not to say I didn’t have a good time. There are plenty of laughs, enough light romance to keep us engaged, and just the right amount of weirdness to make us wonder how things will develop. I’d like to equate this film to a nice vacation getaway: it’s fun while it lasts, but sooner or later we need to wake up and get back to reality.
Final Grade: B