In the early 2000s, it became difficult for Woody Allen to get funding to make his movies in America. Although Allen is a cinema legend, he was coming off of a string of bombs, including the execrable The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, which remains the most expensive failure of his career. So in 2005, Allen went to London, where he was able to receive funding for his next film provided he shot it there. The result, Match Point, was Allen’s biggest financial success in decades and also one of his best films in terms of quality.
Since then, both England and other countries have offered Allen funding and a permissive environment in order to make any sort of films that he wants to write. Allen repaid them with some of his best work, including the Oscar-winning Vicky Cristina Barcelona in 2008. Allen’s first effort in Italy, 2012’s To Rome With Love, is not of the same high quality as Match Point or Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but I’ll take it over his turn-of-the-century doldrums any day.
The film is a collection of four short stories, each of them taking place in Rome and none of them connecting with each other:
- Hayley (Allison Pill) meets and gets engaged to an Italian man, and when her opera-director father (Allen) visits the country to meet him, he finds that his daughter’s undertaker father-in-law (famed tenor Fabio Armiliato) is gifted with a magnificent voice;
- John (Alec Baldwin) returns to the neighborhood in Rome where he lived for a time in his 20s, and runs into Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), who is living in the very apartment that John once used. Jack soon finds himself an odd situation with his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) and her best friend (Ellen Page), even as John tries to give him advice;
- A young couple from the Italian countryside find themselves separated in Rome over the course of a day, where husband Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) becomes accidentally involved with local prostitute Anna (Penelope Cruz) and wife Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) meets a famous movie star (Antonio Albanese);
- An everyday Italian businessman (Roberto Bengini, Oscar winner for Life is Beautiful) suddenly and inexplicably becomes famous, and has to deal with the pressures of the paparazzi and the groupies that come with his celebrity.
Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: The Bengini and Antonio/Milly stories are not good. The Bengini story is the worst offender, for nothing is quite as intellectually masturbatory as one of the world’s most famous New Yorkers directing one of the world’s most famous Italians in a tale about how rough it is to be famous. Bengini isn’t even given that much opportunity to be funny; he’s mostly a straight man for absurd things which are happening all around him. Only the final scene of his story gives a hint of the manic clown who managed to charm America, but by then we’re sick of seeing him.
As for the Antonio/Milly story, it benefits from the unmistakeable presence of Cruz: she’s playing a character who is supposed to command every scene, and she is more than up to the task. At first it seems like the story might be about her, a cunning criticism of films like Pretty Woman where a prostitute finds herself thrown into more polite society. However, once the talk turns to Milly it becomes clear that Anna is just a tool to improve Antonio’s marriage, which makes her presence a lot less fun. Also, both halves of this couple’s tale suffer from the fact that they are on-the-nose to a painful degree. Allen wants to tell a story about Antonio’s obvious Madonna/whore complex, but that doesn’t mean he needs to spell it out to the degree that Milly is called “like a Madonna” not once but twice.
The Allen story is an odd duck. Without spoiling anything, the concept goes in a very humorous direction, and the comic presence of Judy Davis as Allen’s wife is always welcome. However, Allen (who has said that this film will be his last acting role) simply did not seem to have his fastball as an actor. His one-liners mostly fall flat, and a character which ought to be as easy as breathing for him – a death-obsessed artist in a field which has little appreciation outside of Manhattan – seems strained and difficult at times. Most of the comedy comes from comic moments that Allen wrote his character into, but he doesn’t really sell them with performance in the way that he used to. The best actor in the entire story is actually Pill, whose timing and fortitude recall Diane Keaton’s 1970s work in Allen’s films.
So, I hated To Rome With Love, right? Not at all. The remaining story is fantastic and saves the entire movie. It quickly becomes clear that Baldwin and Eisenberg are playing the same man at two different periods in his life, but the Baldwin character also interacts with Gerwig and Page as well. These touches create a surreal sort of environment where John is occasionally remembering what really happened, and occasionally remembering what he wished had happened, and occasionally remembering what Jack wanted to happen. These things, which Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind did with practical effects and touches of whimsy, Allen accomplishes with Baldwin’s fine performance and unmistakable voice.
Also of note is Eisenberg, because I had been expecting he would be playing a Woody Allen surrogate. He has the slight build and nebbishy voice, and has played neurotic in the past. Instead, between John and Jack, Eisenberg is playing the more confident one. He’s living a fine life and he knows it, which adds to the foolishness of his affair with Page. He knows that he risks throwing away a good thing, but he can’t help himself, and not merely in a physical way. He’s just hopelessly attracted to a personality that he ought not be, and he thinks he can make it work. His confident performance creates the inevitability of memory: the audience knows that this has all happened to John before, in part because Jack’s mind cannot possibly be changed even though he knows the risk.
In fact, if Woody Allen wanted to do something really experimental, I wouldn’t have minded if this film were simply several variations on the John/Jack story. There could be a version where Gerwig and Page switch characters, a version where the story begins from Jack’s point of view instead of John’s … in some ways Allen is cheating himself by limiting this tale to one-fourth of a two-hour film. Not only does the concept have promise, but the promise is fulfilled in a way that the remainder of To Rome With Love can only wish for.
Reviewed by Mark Young