by Emma Bernstein, published on June 15, 2012 - 7:36 AM|
In the recent PBS "American Masters" portrait of Woody Allen by director Robert Weide, Allen describes how he has a file folder filled with hundreds of loglines for movies he has come up with over the years; after completing each film, he sorts through them, finds one that speaks to him at the time and writes it up. To that end, "To Rome With Love" feels like four minor stories that Allen found in a pile and loosely stitched together in a narrative tied to Rome. That said, Rome is beautiful, and a mouthwatering set for any director. Unfortunately, you can't build a movie on a set alone.
The plot concerns four different storylines intercut throughout the film's running time, which, at 2 hours, is probably 30 minutes too long. With so many storylines going at once, it's hard to focus on all of them for an extended period of time. Without a clear narrative thrust, it's difficult to care about any of these characters who ultimately end up going nowhere. We have John (Alec Baldwin), a famous architect taking a stroll down memory lane and encountering himself, or someone like him, in budding architect Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig), who welcome Sally's seductive friend Monica (Ellen Page) into their expat lifestyle. Meanwhile, American student Hailey (Alison Pill) introduces her parents, Jerry (Allen) and Phyllis (Judy Davis) to her Italian fiancée (Flavio Parenti) and his family; when Jerry discovers his daughter's father-in-law to be (real life opera singer Fabio Armiliato) is a talented singer, he decides to come out of retirement and produce a new opera around him. On the other side of town, a newlywed Italian couple (Alessandra Mastronardi and Alessandro Tiberi) arrives in Rome from the countryside to pursue city life. Finally, Roberto Begnini provides a recognizable Italian face, and parodies his post-Oscar taste of fame, when his nebbish clerk character inexplicably becomes the toast of the town. If this seems like a lot to juggle, it is.
The good news is, many of the performances are genuinely charming, and the entire cast is great. And while there are several Woody Allen surrogates, the individual actors play their roles well and create believable relationships with real stakes that don't feel low. Alec Baldwin's routine as Jack Donaghy in Rome is entertaining, and offers a lightness in an otherwise dragging and predictable storyline. The newlywed story offers the best performances, particularly Mastronardi as a starry-eyed naif. But the clear standout is Penelope Cruz as wayward prostitute Anna, with a performance that convinces you she's Italian (Best Supporting Dress goes to her wardrobe). Yet, the characters still feel like pawns in a Woody Allen magical-realist game.
Benigni's storyline feels facile and pointless, until you realize that its Allen's comment on an aspiring star's fantasy, and also the tragedy that the notion of celebrity has become. When a groupie tells Begnini "the rules don't apply to you, you're special," it's not a far cry to imagine Allen's (and perhaps every newly minted celeb's) inner monolgue saying something similar. However, the conceit wears thin almost immediately and it's rarely even funny, but exists to tie up the disparate tales thematically. Yet, by the time we realize what Allen's trying to say-- celebrity is a fleeting dream-- he's hit us over the head with it so many times that any subtlety in storytelling is lost. In an ironic twist, Allen drops his characters off right back at the stop where they got in on. This repetition illustrates how much more successful each story would have been on its own and not intercut with the other three equally paper thin tales.
Despite successfully capturing the beauty and magic of Rome, the picture's location seems random and unnecessary. "To Rome With Love" isn't set in the Italian city for any good narrative reason -- these stories likely could have been told in New York, Copenhagen, or any other city in the world. What's really the case is that Italian benefactors produced the film and gave Allen the money in the 3rd or 4th stage of his career, which has become quite the European tour -- go where the money goes. That's not to say that the setting isn't one of the most pleasurable things about the film, because it ties it together better than any other element throughout the first three-quarters of the running time.
In typical Allen fashion, the score is pitch perfect, the dialogue is quippy and quirky and lands a few good zingers, and moviegoers will be pleased with the abundance of comely faces, toned bodies and Roman vistas. At its best, it's innocuous, marginally funny, amiable, pleasant and cute, but at its worst, it's forgettable, harried and too long, with none of the stories are given the chance to develop into anything emotionally resonant. "To Rome With Love" paints a pretty, but slight picture of another stop on Allen's world tour, but unlike "Manhattan" and "Midnight in Paris," you won't feeling like booking a plane ticket anytime soon. [C+]