For decades now, Woody Allen has written and directed at least one picture per yeara rate of consistency that is both impressive and vulnerable to occasional misjudgments. As Allen has aged (he is 76 now), his successes have become more erratic, even following the marginal comeback he experienced when his screen settings traded New York for Europe, beginning with 2005's "Match Point
." Coming twelve months after the biggest financial hit of his career, 2011's whimsical if slight "Midnight in Paris
," "To Rome with Love" marks the veteran filmmaker's most jarring failure since 2003's "Anything Else
." Save for the naturally stunning on-location shooting by Darius Khondji (2008's "The Ruins
") and a cast of excellent actors drowned like rats by the thankless screenplay, there is virtually nothing to recommend in this aimless, desperately amateurish, and, dare it be said, utterly pointless triptych of tales. Before this project reached the production stage, it would have been a smart idea for Allen to recognize the value of trash bins.
In depicting a handful of sordid lives within the so-called Eternal City, Allen alternates between four unconnected short stories, each one perrplexingly with its own singular timespan lasting anywhere from an afternoon up to several weeks. In the first, retired opera director Jerry (Woody Allen) and wife Phyllis (Judy Davis) travel to Rome to meet their grown daughter Hayley's (Alison Pill) new Italian fiancé Michaelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Upon uniting with his respective parents, Jerry overhears Michaelangelo's mortician father Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato) singing in the shower. His voice is as powerful and beautiful as any he's ever heard, but can't understand why Giancarlo doesn't sound nearly as accomplished outside of the bathroom. Jerry's solution to this quandary leads to an obviousand stupidpunchline. As for the sweet-natured Hayley and the domineering Michaelangelo, they do not seem at all right for each other, but their obvious mismatch is slid under the rug in preference for an unfunny concluding gag.
Meanwhile, John (Alec Baldwin) is vacationing with his wife when he wanders off and meets aspiring architect Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a young man who reminds him of himself in his youth. Following him back to his apartment, John becomes a sort of phantom sounding board for Jack as he watches him start to fall for his girlfriend Sally's (Greta Gerwig) visiting friend, colorful, pseudo-intellectual actress Monica (Ellen Page). The other characters talk to and react to John as if he were there even as he stands back and observes them in intimate situations; it's a gimmick that doesn't work for a second. Shallow and distinctly unsatisfying, this segment goes nowhere very slowly, with Jack bewitched by Monica despite his better judgment. He has an affair with heran affair that the kind, even-headed Sally never learns aboutand is quickly dropped the second Monica learns she's been cast in a big Hollywood movie and must return to the States. The end. If there's meaning to be found here, it certainly doesn't reveal itself.
In the third yarn, small-town newlyweds Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) arrive in Rome hoping to impress Antonio's relatives and procure a big-city job. In preparation, Milly heads out on her own in search of a salon and gets hopelessly lost. Stumbling upon the filming of a movie, Milly is starstruck when she meets international star Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese), and then faced with a tough decision when he makes the moves on her. For Antonio, he is swept up in a maelstrom of lies when sexy prostitute Anna (Penelope Cruz) shows up uninvited at his room and then is caught in a compromising position by his aunts and uncles. Desperate to not get caught, he convinces Anna to play along as wife Milly. What might have been an amusing "Three's Company"-style screwball farce as Antonio tries to keep Anna's true identity a secret squanders nearly all potential, leading to easy, flat-footed jokes about Anna's revealing clothing and one fleeting mention of her sordid upbringing. The only place this story goes is right down the tubes, leading to a conclusion that left a bad taste in this viewer's mouth.
Finally, Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) is an ordinary middle-class Roman with a job that pays the bills and a loving family. He becomes famous literally overnight, a paparazzi's sweetheart with crowds of adoring fans and reporters that hang on his every word (yes, what he had for breakfast and what kind of bread he eats become world news). The point of this one, at least, is more obviousAllen is making a part-snide, part-jestful comment on today's culture of celebrities who are famous, quite frankly, for nothing more than being famous. It has its moments, but there's a reason it's part of an anthology and not feature length; there's not nearly enough depth of material to withstand more than thirty minutes, tops.
When Woody Allen sat down to write "To Rome with Love" (originally titled "The Bop Decameron" before studio heads got scared us stupid Americans wouldn't know what any of those words meant), what was his overall goal? What did he want to say? It's always a treat to see Allen in front of the camera (the last time he starred in one of his films was 2006's undervalued gem "Scoop
"), and, yes, no one can deliver an acerbic one-liner quite as well as him, but the filmmaker in him should have realized long before production that this script was derivative hogwash. He does his cast no favorsof them, only Ellen Page (2010's "Inception
") is allowed to have much fun as the uninhibited Monicaand commits a crime against cinema by being the very first director to totally and despicably waste Greta Gerwig (2012's "Lola Versus
"), given about five or six lines here and nothing to do as Sally. Altogether more worrisome than this, though, is the picture's ugly, nonchalant view of adultery. No less than three different couples either have affairs or seriously consider it throughout, without consequence or hardly any guilt. The director's preoccupation with the topic is not surprising, but he treats the act of cheating on a loved one with the seriousness of a light sneeze. When "To Rome with Love" ends, only a dispiriting sense of emptiness is left. Let's hope this leap into madness is merely a temporary detour for Woody Allen. Perhaps finally returning to the U.S. for the first time in years (his next movie is set in New York and San Francisco) will be just the creative shake-up he needs.