The 42nd feature film of writer/director (and actor) Woody Allen, less an excursion to Rome itself – despite the film capturing the historic city’s infinitely alluring locales, though they are usually off to the side – than a short jaunt to the Little Italy neighborhood in your respective city, is comprised of several stories introduced for no discernible reason whatsoever by a traffic cop that never congeal into any greater theme.
The best, worst and most emblematic of the stories involves an architect named Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) studying in Rome. He’s in a relationship with Sally (Greta Gerwig, sorely underused) but Sally’s friend Monica (Ellen Page) – described as a living, breathing Miss Julie – is visiting. She, Sally says over and over, holds sway over men, and she sways Jack in no time. However, Jack has met a noted architect named John Foy (Alec Baldwin) who lived in Rome at Jack’s age. He brings John back to his home and then, at some point, wonderfully without explanation, John transforms from reality to fantasy, functioning as a conscience for all three characters.
This is crucial because this love triangle is a tired re-mining of well-known Woody territory – an artist in a relationship with a frumpy woman falls for a free spirt. In fact, certain moments are cribbed straight from the love triangle of his 2003 film Anything Else. But whereas in that film the audience was left to point out the obviousness on its own, in To Rome With Love we luckily have John Foy to point it out for us. Not that Jack, Sally or Monica heed any of his verbal notes.
The other stories, in no particular order, involve Roberto Benigni’s ultra-mild-mannered family man who is magically altered into a celebrity, a young couple, Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi,) about to wed who are tempted, respectively, by a hooker (Penelope Cruz) and a movie star (Antonio Albanese) and a young woman, Hayley (Allison Pill), in Rome for the summer who falls for an Italian, decides to get married and is paid a visit by her mother and father (Judy Davis and Allen) only to find her father – a retired opera director – trying to turn her fiancé’s father (Fabio Armiliato) into a singing star.
I confess I experienced a real thrill when the action shifts to a plane flying over the Atlantic and the camera moves down the aisle and toward two seats in the back as you realize: “Oh, man! Woody’s going to be in one of those seats!” And he is. And then he’s making Woody jokes. And they are so flat and so feeble. An example would be the hooker inevitably winding up in the Sistine Chapel and making a crack about knowing what it’s like to be on your back for so long. Groan. Seriously, that wouldn’t have made the cut in National Lampoon: Van Wilder 17, The Wildest. At one point when Woody is threatened via knife by his daughter’s fiancé’s mother, what does he do? Grab his own wife and use her as a shield. “Maybe he won’t stab a woman,” he says. Does he have ANY idea what decade he’s in?
Worse, though, is how the tale takes a decent enough idea – the fiancé’s father is great singer but ONLY in the shower – and then takes it nowhere interesting or exciting. It’s a half-thought, sketched on a legal pad and quickly rushed into production.
Benigni’s vignette is quite clearly meant to satirize our current culture that makes people famous merely for being famous people. It’s a swell idea that also goes nowhere, recycling the same jokes form scene to scene and allowing him to sleep with elegant models with no guilt and no apologies to his wife. Speaking of which, our young newlyweds both sleep with their suitors – well, the bride-to-be DECIDES she will sleep with her suitor only to reverse course and sleep with someone else instead. This would seem to be disaster pre-wedding but, you know, when in rome, put a gun in a girl’s face and you get to sex her up anyway.
And so we re-arrive at the tale of Jack, John, Monica, and pitiable Sally in which the most troubling hallmarks of late-era Allen’s writing are present – characters vanishing when the writer no longer has use for them (Sally, where for art thou Sally?) and, of course, characters let off the hook with nothing learned and nothing gained. There are no re-percussions in To Rome With Love. Lessons are handed out for free. Do the wrong thing and the right thing falls in lap your anyway. John Foy keeps pointing out everything that’s wrong and no one pays him any attention because why would they? I am honestly reaching the breaking point with Allen’s insistence on making everything so easy for everyone.
There is a moment early on when Woody denies his advancing age. “I’ve got fifty or sixty years left,” he says. It makes you wonder what Woody has to truly say about aging. Not, it seems, that we’ll ever know.