“If you like it, great. If you don’t like the picture, please don’t tell me. I get depressed easily.” —Woody Allen
Well Woody, stop reading now, because I’m not going to bury the lead — To Rome With Love is a mess. A god damned, hot pile of mess. It’s like four film school projects mashed together in a clusterfuck piece of art that’s purportedly a “tribute” to the magic of Rome and the stories one can find there but, in reality, is Woody transparently working through some of his own issues on film in a manner similar to someone who has just written his first film, not his sixtieth-odd film.
Before the rather delayed start to the screening, I had a lovely conversation with the woman next to me, an ad manager for the Landmark Theaters, a chain which happens to run the (disputable to some, but they be wrong) best theater in LA (at least, as I told her, until a new theater opens this fall which I’m increasingly suspecting will be an Alamo Drafthouse). Her feigned claim to having a passing familiarity with Pajiba, despite the clear fact that she’d never heard of it and thought I said something rude at my first utterance of the site’s name, endeared her to me immediately. Forty minutes of conversation strengthened that endearment considerably. She had excellent movie taste, a charming fondness for rescue dogs, an approach to parenting and the role of movies which was spot on, and she totally understood the important role Chinese food plays in the secularism of the modern Amercan Jew.
In the hands of most Hollywood writers, this would’ve been the beginning meet-cute of some slightly-comedic, heavily-heartfelt romance. In the hands of the Woody Allen of some years ago, this would’ve been the beginning of a tragically hilarious story about a guy who is closer in age to the woman’s children, but shares her sentimentalities, albeit with broken rather than rosy glasses. In the hands of the Woody Allen who gives us To Rome With Love, this would’ve been the beginning of a long cliched story where the woman has an attractive daughter who inexplicably begins a torrid affair with me, our respective relationships with her mother be damned, while on the other side of LA, some other things are happening that are neither thematically nor narratively related. And he’d cast himself as my annoying mensch of a father, and turn the whole affair into a self-obsessed psychological study of the trappings of his own life.
Since bile alone a review does not make, I suppose we should talk a little about the film itself. It opens with a monologue from an Italian traffic cop who, in talking to the viewer about the fact that Rome has many stories to tell, willfully ignores the traffic accident taking place just off camera. If I thought Allen had any sense for what a mess his own film turned into, this would be an amazingly-meta narrative highlight. Instead, it’s a poorly executed comedic moment, a sad sign of things to come. We then jump into the first of what turns out to be four separate stories that we’re presented in the film, that of the American Hayley (Alison Pill) who falls in love with local lawyer Michalengelo (Flavio Parenti). On the eve of their marriage, her parents Jerry (Allen) and Phyllis (Judy Davis) come to Rome for a visit. They meet Michelangelo’s parents, strained comedy ensues over Allen’s refusal to pronounce Michelangelo’s name properly, and the story evolves into one that’s not about Haley and Michelangelo’s relationship but about Jerry and Michelangelo’s father and Jerry’s refusing inability to settle into retirement. Because Woody Allen can’t help making it about himself.
Meanwhile, in another section of Rome, ex-pats Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) and Sally (Greta Gerwig) live together and are receiving a visit from Sally’s friend Monica (Ellen Page), a vixenous, recently-dumped, struggling actress, while Jack may be, simultaneously, developing a friendship with an architecture idol of his, played by Alec Baldwin. In yet another part of the city, Antonio (Allesandro Tiberius) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) have just arrived to the big city and wind up in a fidelity-straining comedy of errors involving Antonio’s extended family, a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) and a famous Italian actor (Antonio Albanese). And in still another part of the city, Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) is an everyday schmuck who becomes an overnight celebrity, with all the glory, failings and trappings that go with such fame.
The film cuts back and forth from each of these stories, although there’s no particular reason for it. Early on, one wonders if there is going to be any narrative cross-over, but it quickly becomes apparent that there will not be. These are four unrelated vignettes that have nothing to do with each other aside from taking place in the same city. In fact, the stories are so disconnected, and the storytelling such a sloppy mess, that time annoyingly moves entirely differently over the course of each of the stories, sometimes to the point of distraction — Milly and Antonio’s takes place over an afternoon while Jerry’s and Leopoldo’s each cover weeks or months. Nor are the movies of a particularly shared theme, aside from the through-line that most of the characters turn out to be particularly unlikable.
There are some good things to say about the film. Baldwin is entertaining as always, and there’s a device used in that vignette with his character which works better than it has has any business doing. There are many other good performances (and a few wasted actors, primarily Gerwig), although the surprising standout was Bernini. I expected an annoying, manic bundle of “mama mia” and, instead, he delivered a sometimes-nuanced, sometimes touching performance. By the end, his character, loving and hating his new-found celebrity, was fairly hateable, but that had nothing to do with Bernini and everything to do with the writing, which really felt like Allen trying to offer commentary on the nature of fame while also dealing with his own celebrity and associated neuroses. But that’s nothing compared with the Jerry story.
Jerry’s story is about an older man facing the prospect of retirement and unable to go gently into the soft non-working life, haunted by his work accomplishments or lack thereof and compelled to keep going. This may not be an issue Woody has faced in recent times, but casting himself in the role (his first in seven-odd years) makes it hard to think otherwise. It doesn’t help any attempted separation that Jerry is a miserable caricature of the Woody Allen character.
For example, Jerry is introduced to us in an airplane scene where he kvetches about turbulence to his wife in what would, being performed by someone else, feel like a send-up of Woody Allen’s persona. He’s bitchy and twitchy, and the scene is unintentionally awkward as Woody doesn’t so much act as line read and then take a break before the next line. It’s poorly paced and utterly devoid of the humor it thinks it has. In fact, it gave me an immediate dislike of Jerry, and that dislike turned to disdain as the movie went on.
As I mentioned earlier, that’s actually the only thing shared in many of these stories — unlikable characters. Virtually every character in the Milly/Antonio storyline is or becomes an unlikable cartoon — only Penelope Cruz’s character, while still a cartoon, remains somewhat likable (and it’s not just because she’s poured into her red dress in an inhumanly magnificent way, though that certainly doesn’t hurt). Leopoldo also becomes loathable and unsympathetic, although at least, in this instance, that’s partially the point.
Look, it doesn’t make any sense to just heap complaint upon complaint. If one of my grandmothers were still alive, I’d consider taking them to this as they probably would’ve found it a perfectly passable Saturday afternoon story. It does have some gorgeous Roman cinematography. A few moments work here and there, with a smattering of humor or poignancy backed by actors all giving it their best. But the whole here is far less than its parts and in the quick span of 100 minutes Woody had managed to burn away all the goodwill he engendered with Midnight in Paris.
To Rome With Love premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival. I’ll try not to hold that against the fest.